Mille Lacs Lake is one of the top multi-species fisheries on the planet, and it’s located right in our backyard here at AnglingBuzz HQ. It’s one of the most popular walleye fisheries on the planet due to it’s traditionally fabulous fishing, paired with it’s close proximity to one of the biggest population centers in the Midwest.
We recently sat down Brad Hawthorne, one of the top guides on the lake, and asked him a series of question about the lake. It’s always fun talking to someone who’s truly dialed in to the pulse of the lake. Brad has been fishing Mille Lacs his entire life and is always trying new things. Our interview covers a wide range of topics and several of the lake’s most popular fish species.
We know some of you like watching videos and other like reading articles, so we transcribed the video above for those of you who would prefer a text-version of the Q&A.
What Makes Mille Lacs Lake unique?
The lakes diversity. If I could put it in a nutshell, there are three different sections of Mille Lacs: The northwest area is going to be your mud flats, the northeast area is the sand, and then the south end is basically all rock. If you’re a guy that’s good fishing around rock, you can concentrate your efforts on the southern end of the lake. If you’re a mudflat fisherman, you have the largest mud flats in the state of Minnesota on northwest end. And if you’re a guy who likes easy snag-free fishing, you can go up to the sand and, depend on the time of year, find fish anywhere from three to twenty-three feet of water. Run a simple trolling program up there and you’re going to catch fish.
The other thing that makes it unique is it’s diverse fish populations. Mille Lacs has been in the news a lot lately and — truth is — it’s always going to be in the news because it’s the Twin Cities playground. Mille Lacs is an hour and a half away from a massive population center and it has several different species of fish that are constantly changing and in flux, always giving anglers something to target depending on the time of year.
What is your favorite way to target walleyes throughout the various seasons?
It’s gonna be rigging. If I had to choose one way to target walleyes and I couldn’t fish with anything else, it would be rigging leeches, crawlers, and minnows. As the season progresses, you start with leeches in spring, and then move to some combination of crawlers and leeches throughout the summertime period. Once fall rolls around, you start running those four-to-eight inch suckers and chubs. The minnow bite is just awesome — you can feel it wiggling around down there, and that’s your indicator that you’re gonna get bit … and it’s probably gonna be a big one!
What about walleyes during the ice season?
There are three different cultures of ice fishermen on Mille Lacs. You have the hardcore guys like myself that go out and portable fish and drill until you find fish. And then you have the permanent fish house guys who have fish houses at the resorts. They may move once or twice, and they may do the portable thing during the day, but they have their nice big shacks with flat-screen TVs and all the amenities of home — it’s like having an up-north cabin on ice. Lastly, you have your wheelhouse guy who like to jump around from lake to lake following the hot bites. If it’s hot on Mille Lacs, that’s where they’ll be. If the walleyes are chewing on Red Lake, you can bet they’ll be up there. So, you have the transient fishermen, the permanent fishermen, and you have the portable fishermen, and they are all coexisting on a big diverse lake that’s just north of the Twin Cities.
The cool part about Mille Lacs in the winter is that even on a slow day, if you’re fishing a high percentage spot like the tip of a mudflat or a transition area, the fish are eventually going to come through. So if you’re just going to camp and grind, usually even the novice angler can be highly successful on Mille Lacs catching walleyes on tip-ups, set-lines, or jigging a plain silver spoon just off the bottom.
What’s your favorite way to target bass on Mille Lacs?
It’s such a short window and all my customers ask for it every year, it’s the hot topwater smallmouth bite. It’s such a narrow window, but when it’s going, it’s hot and heavy. We’re on it for just a couple weeks during the season, and then there are the individual days throughout the season where the conditions are right. But literally, it’s around the time the bugs are hatching and the bass are just coming off the spawn. They are super aggressive and putting on the feedbag, and you can get them to hit big topwaters. It’s an absolute blast.
So the topwater bite is my favorite, but my #2 would have to be throwing swimbaits. It’s just a fun way to fish, even with a simple straight retrieve. Smallmouth don’t hit swimbaits lightly — they almost always whack it and take off running, jumping and peeling off line. It’s a lot of fun!
What are some of your favorite colors on Mille Lacs?
I know it gets beat up a lot, but if you’re chucking tubes for bass, it’s gonna be green pumpkin. Also, Northland makes a mustard color that’s killer. It amazes me that it doesn’t sell out, because it’s become a standard for me — it’s an ugly color but it works very, very well. For your Mille Lacs walleyes, orange is always a big player. If you’re rigging, you might use an orange hook, an orange float, or maybe orange spinners — you always have some type of orange on there. The combination of orange and blue is really good on Mille Lacs. I know it sounds like a weird combination, but it works.
When you start getting into crankbait season, many of the natural colors work well — and here’s where Mille Lacs gets odd as far as crankbait colors go: You’ll see a day where you’re trolling natural perch, and then you’ll see a day where it’s all UV. It amazes me how the fish in this lake can jump from one end of the spectrum to the other day-by-day. There aren’t many bodies of water where you can fish a natural perch at 7:00am, and by noon, you have UV Pink Tiger on going 2.5 mph and they’re just crushing it.
Are there any misconceptions about the lake?
That the lake is in trouble. Mille Lacs is not in trouble, and it’s never really been in trouble, in my opinion. The times that the lake was shutdown to walleye fishing, the fish just didn’t bite. Everyone thought, “Oh, there’s no fish in Mille Lacs” — but the real problem is they weren’t biting. As we’ve seen this year and the year before, there’s tons and tons of fish in Mille Lacs. There are times when you go out bass fishing, and you can’t keep the walleyes off your line.
The biggest misconception the media puts out is that Mille Lacs is fished-out, but as we saw at the Bassmaster AOY Championship, a lot of the guys had problems targeting smallmouth bass because the walleye simply wouldn’t let them. So, if that’s not a tattletale from the media, I don’t know what is!
The other misconception on Mille Lacs is related to wind. Everyone says you need to fish this side of the flat or that side of the flat based on the wind. Yes, Mille Lacs is wind-depended, but I wouldn’t want anyone to fall into the old rules that say with a west wind, you always need to fish the east side of the flat or visa versa. Turn on your fish finder, driver around, and drop your line where you find the fish, regardless of what the wind is doing. In doing so, you’re going to catch a lot more fish.
What is your favorite end of the lake and why?
The southeast corner because I lived there. Where you live, you get to know that area first. When Side-Imaging first came out, I literally spent days down there marking new spots that I never knew existed. It was a time period where your eyes were finally wide open to the underwater world, and it was interesting to see these pieces of structure that what you thought they looked like on the map chip and what you envision them being is completely wrong. For example, some rock points were literally six big rocks and here I’d pictured it being a bunch of cobblestone on a point.
I also like the southeast corner because it has just about everything you would ever need. You’ve got mud, you’ve got rock, you’ve got sand, and you even have big boulders. It’s just an amazing end of the lake. It’s probably the most difficult section of the lake to learn thanks to it’s diversity, complexity and vast amount of structure.
Are there any common mistakes people make on Mille Lacs?
Fishing too shallow. I see a lot of guys coming up from the South — you know Mille Lacs has been highly publicized for it’s smallmouth fishing — and they fish way too shallow. I get the DIY fishing thing, I totally get it, but I see a lot of guys jump in their bass boat and start fishing their way down the shoreline. I’m out with my customers, anywhere from a quarter to three miles offshore, whacking on bass, and you come back in and they’re six miles down the line still beating up the shoreline, 50 to 80 feet off shore the whole way down.
You’d think because the shoreline is rocky and it looks good that it would be bass territory, but the truth of the matter is the fish might creep up into the shallows on calmer days, but they tend to stay out of that 2-3 feet of water and that’s mostly due to the waves. When the lake starts rolling, those shallow areas fill with turbulent water and the fish will generally vacate those areas.
One important thing to remember if you’re bass fishing on Mille Lacs is that crayfish are king. You’re always going to find smallies around crayfish because they make up 90% of their diet. As a result, crayfish baits are always going to be #1 picks on Mille Lacs. Drop shotting can be a highly effective technique, don’t get me wrong, but some guys will fish it non-stop all year long, and in my opinion, they are missing the boat. To be good on Mille Lacs, you need to be well-versed in several different techniques, so don’t grind on the on the dropshot all season. It’s better during certain time periods, especially when the fish are deep, but there are more effective ways of catching them at other time throughout the year.
To sum it up: Look for the offshore structure — don’t just cast at big rocks because you see them up on shore. Remember that crayfish are king, and don’t lean on the dropshot all year long.
What is the most underappreciated bite on Mille Lacs?
The pike fishing on Mille Lacs it’s probably like what Canada was in the 1960s and 70s, where you throw on a Five of Diamonds or a Super Shad and kick your boat up to 3.0 – 3.5 mph — find weeds, find rocks, they’re all over the place and they are gigantic!
My personal best pike on Mille Lacs is 46 inches, and you’ll see fish coming out of the lake in that mid-40’s range all the time. It’s commonplace. The pike are just an underutilized fish. I can’t think of another lake in Minnesota where an angler could spend $10 on lures and line, and go out and troll at 3.0 mph and have a shot at a true trophy pike.
What is the best time of year to fish Mille Lacs?
Spring and fall. Actually, scratch that — I’m gonna say the whole year, outside of maybe the dog days of summer when it can get a little tough. In spring, we have a terrific rig bite, then we transition usually into blades and then into leadcore. And then of course we revert back to the early season presentation as water temperatures begin to drop back down in fall. All of these bites are usually excellent throughout the year.
It’s the same process with smallmouth bass. We start off the year chucking jerkbaits in the spring and when the bite is slow, we bust out the hair jigs. Then we transition to tubes and other various plastics, and then later in the summer the dropshot becomes key. And then there’s the feeding frenzy right before fall that no one really fishes. I challenge anyone to spend the day on Mille Lacs in the fall targeting smallmouth with your gloves and hat on, and I guarantee you’re gonna catch some of the biggest bass of your life.