7 Best Lakes to Ice Fish near Duluth, Minnesota

Minnesota is indeed the “land of 10,000 lakes.”  Although, come winter it turns into the land of 10,000 ice fishing opportunities.  Ice fishing has been a major tradition for many in Minnesota and as popularity in the sport increases, so does the challenge of finding your own secret fishing hole.

Duluth, Minnesota has its fair share of ice fishing options. With so many frozen lakes to fish, it would take several lifetimes to try all the best ones.  That’s why we worked hard to find you the best places to try first around Duluth, MN.  

Best places to ice fish near Duluth, Minnesota.

  1. Boulder Lake Reservoir
  2. Fish Lake
  3. Gull Lake
  4. Caribou Lake
  5. St. Louis Bay (Lake Superior)
  6. Leech Lake
  7. Upper Red Lake

Continue reading to see what each lake has to offer.  You may discover a new favorite fishing hole this winter.

1. Boulder Lake Reservoir

Fish you might catch: 

Black crappie, walleye, northern pike, pumpkinseed, yellow perch, bluegill, and burbot

This 3,882 acre reservoir sits only a short 12 mile drive north of Duluth, MN.  It’s a favorite among locals and the quality of fishing reflects that.  Ample public access means getting onto the ice is no problem.  Two popular spots to hit the ice are Silver Fox Resort on the south shore and the Boulder Dam public access located near the west basin.

The lake has a max depth of 18 feet, however most of the lake is shallower.  Water levels can also fluctuate when water demand is high in the surrounding area. 

Walleye are certainly the quarry of choice for most ice anglers on this lake.  You can expect an excellent abundance of 15 to 18 inch eater-sized walleye.  Bigger eyes do exist but in small numbers.  A 20 incher is a real gem.  Find them cruising flats and weed edges.

Perch and crappie fishing is above average with 10 to 12 inch fish that are perfect for the skillet.  Panfish are well distributed in the lake and are found with highest concentrations in small bays and inlets.  For best success, target mid-range depth weed lines and adjacent flats.

You are also likely to catch a fair number of pike but don’t expect any trophies.  Pike in this lake average 20 inches.  A great spot for pike is around the island just to the north of Silver Fox Resort.

Be careful on early ice.  Ice on Boulder Lake seems to form a bit later than surrounding lakes.  Check with locals before going fishing.

2. Fish Lake

Fish you might catch:

Walleye, crappie, bluegill, northern pike, largemouth bass, yellow perch, sunfish and the occasional burbot.

A top rated ice fishing destination right in Duluth’s backyard!  The 2,880 acre Fish Lake Flowage is just north of town and is a popular area for outdoor recreation all year.  With a shoreline that is mostly undeveloped, the easiest access is at Hi-Banks Resort on the north shore.  It just so happens that the resort is also located by some of the best walleye and panfish hot spots. 

Most of the walleye and panfish are targeted just a short walk from the resort at the  narrows and surrounding bays.  The lake is only 36 feet at its deepest.  Most productive depths are around 15 to 20 feet.  

4 to 8 pound walleye are common with plenty of smaller ones available.  Big eyes pushing 12 pounds are not unheard of either.  

Pike and bass make for fun catches through the ice too.  Most pike are in the 20 inch range and largemouth are real fighters if you are fortunate enough to hook up with one.  2 to 3 pounders readily bite if you can find them.

Fish Lake really shines for above average sized panfish.  Crappie and bluegill weighing a pound or more are easy to locate and form good sized schools that can keep you busy all morning.

Good ice forms by the beginning of December most years but a call to Tim at Hi-Banks Resort will get you up-to-date information on ice thickness.  Avoid fishing near the dam and bridge.  Ice shifts unpredictably in these areas and is never safe.

3. Gull Lake

Fish you might catch:

Northern pike, walleye, crappie, bluegill, yellow perch, smallmouth and largemouth bass. 

A 125 mile, two hour drive west of Duluth, MN might not be high on your list of things to do but ice fishing on Gull lake is worth the journey.  At over 10,000 acres, Gull Lake has plenty of room for everyone.  

This 2 mile wide by 15 mile long lake has easy public access dispersed along its shoreline.  Nearly 20 resorts and lodges offer accommodations, most with ice house and equipment rentals. 

Anglers seeking a bountiful walleye fishery should look no further than Gull Lake.  The heavy stocking of nearly 3 million walleye fry and fingerlings support this robust population of fish.  Most fish range from 15 to 18 inches with a few reaching 5 pounds or more.

Walleye grow fast on this lake thanks to a good forage base of perch and tullibee.  A good contour map of the lake will help in finding likely spots to fish.   

Crappie, perch and bluegill numbers are high but the average size is small compared to other lakes in the area.  Perch seldom exceed 9 inches.  Crappie and bluegill are usually less than half a pound.

Good numbers of stout pike roam the weed lines and most are large.  24 inch fish are caught often with a few pushing the 40 inch mark.

In late January, the largest ice fishing contest in the world takes place here.  Since 1991, the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza has been a great way for the ice fishing community to get together every year.  Over $150,000 a year is raised for local charities.  The prizes given for top fish, parties and raffle drawings are sure to be fun for the whole family.

4. Caribou Lake

Fish you might catch:

Walleye, yellow perch, crappie, bluegill, northern pike and largemouth bass.

Looking for another lake close to Duluth?  Caribou Lake is situated just 30 minutes northwest of town.  While it is certainly not the most popular destination for ice fishing enthusiasts, solitude can be found on this 538 acre beauty.

Ice fishing on Caribou Lake is managed specifically for walleye and largemouth bass.  Anglers can expect to catch a good amount of 18 inch walleye with bigger fish a real possibility.  Bass will average 2 to 3 pounds.

The lake is shallow with little structure.  The average depth is 9 feet.  Find fish by focusing on the rare underwater humps and small shallow bays with good vegetation early in the season.  The fish in this lake roam around.  Drill several test holes to stay on  them. 

Panfish are small but abundant.  These easy-to-catch fish make Caribou Lake an easy spot to teach kids the fun of ice fishing.  Rig up a small ice jig with spikes or waxies and let the kids have fun pulling bluegill, sunfish, perch and crappie through the ice. 

Pike also call these waters home.  Most will be small, slender fish around 22 inches and 2.5 pounds.  Great for eating or pickling. 

Two water access sites make getting out on the lake possible.  One is on the west shore and the other across the lake on the eastern shore.  

5. St. Louis Bay (Lake Superior)

Fish you might catch:

Smallmouth bass, walleye, crappie, northern pike, and yellow perch.

If you are looking for an ice fishing spot right in town, it is hard to beat the St. Louis Bay estuary of Lake Superior.  Within walking distance of Duluth, St. Louis Bay is a    popular spot when the water freezes over.

The bay covers 11,500 acres and contains interstate waters shared with Wisconsin.  Heavy boat traffic on Lake Superior is maintained by ice cutters in some locations until late winter.  Stay out of the shipping lanes to avoid fractured ice.  

The easiest way to find good fishing spots is to follow the crowd.  Most days groups of anglers can be seen on the ice all up and down Minnesota’s Highway 61. 

The variety of fish available draws many anglers to these waters.  Walleye are abundant but only average 16 inches.  That’s not to say bigger fish aren’t pulled out on occasion. 

Yellow perch sometimes reach 10 to 11 inches and get quite fat.  It only takes a few to make a good meal.  Other panfish tend to be on the smaller side.  

Pike are frequently caught and average 21 inches.  They are not present in especially high numbers but some fortunate ice anglers find greedy packs that readily bite any bait that crosses their path.

6. Leech Lake

Fish you might catch:

Walleye, jumbo yellow perch, northern pike, crappie, sunfish, burbot and largemouth bass.

This massive lake claims the title as the third largest lake entirely in the borders of Minnesota.  Its 112,000 acres is accessed by a 2.5 hour drive west of Duluth.

Well known for exceptional ice fishing, a season of ice fishing is not complete until you visit Leech Lake.  

Whether you are after the tasty walleye or 13 inch jumbo perch, you can find your own honey hole among the many bays and island points spread around the lake.  Walker Bay has the deepest water at nearly 160 feet deep.  The rest of the lake is below 35 feet deep, perfect for targeting walleye.

The stellar walleye fishery provides tons of action for skilled anglers who know the water well.  A slot limit is in place to support a strong spawning population of females.  Fish pushing 29 inches are around and the fish and game department estimates that 20 percent of the fish are 15 to 19 inch keepers.  

Yellow perch garner their own following of dedicated ice anglers as well.  Jumbos school in good numbers in 20 to 30 feet of water.  There is nothing quite like pulling a football shaped perch up through the ice.  Their colors are vivid and they make a tasty meal.  I prefer to let the jumbos go though.  There are tons of 10 inch perch well suited for cooking.

Pike, bass and other panfish round out Leech Lake’s quality fishing opportunities.  Pike up to 33 inches, bass from 15 to 19 inches and crappie over a pound all prowl most of the major bays.

Large burbot sulk along the bottoms of the deeper bays in Leech Lake and are frequently caught.  The annual International Eelpout Festival draws over 10,000 visitors every February to celebrate the burbot (eelpout).  Fishing contests and prizes give incentive to anglers who brave the cold to catch this unusual fish.  Burbot are also known as the freshwater lingcod.  A truly underrated addition to your list of delicious fish. 

Year-round accommodations are available around the lake.  Most of the lake is frozen with good ice by late December but check online for reports before making a trip.

7. Upper Red Lake   

Fish you might catch:

Walleye, yellow perch, northern pike, burbot and a few slab crappie.

Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake combine to cover 288,000 acres, making it the largest lake in Minnesota.  Upper Red gets all the attention though because of the phenomenal walleye action during ice fishing season.  

Upper Red Lake requires the longest drive on this list from Duluth.  The 4 hour drive might be pushing it for a day trip.  Although, a long weekend excursion will give you your fill of ice fishing adventure.  

Ice forms early on Upper Red due to its shallow depth that averages 12 feet.  Solid ice means anglers bring out towable ice houses and claim their favorite spots.  Don’t fret though, there is plenty of ice for everyone.  

Walleye numbers are high and you can expect to catch your share of 15 to 19 inch class fish. Fish up to 20 inches are common.  The walleye population is still recovering from a crash in the population in the mid-90’s.  Today, the recovery effort is well underway and fishing is great.

Big slab crappie were everywhere at one time in the late 90’s.  Anglers who frequent the lake are still able to find 1.5 pound fish on occasion.  Most crappie schools contain a few whoppers up to 11 inches.

Perch and pike are caught incidentally by people targeting walleye.  A perch pulled through the ice has a good chance of being 9 inches or better.

Access and lodging is available in nearby towns.  Upper Red is mostly undeveloped and maintained access is found at a few locations on the south and eastern sides.

Minnesota ice fishing tips

Experiencing what Minnesota has to offer means getting on the ice and enjoying the traditions of ice fishing with friends and family.  

If you want to be more successful this year, here are a few tips for ice fishing in Minnesota.

  • Bigger lakes tend to have more abundant and larger fish.  That is not a hard and fast rule but it will certainly help you narrow down your lake selection.
  • Follow the crowd.  You may enjoy solitude but you can learn a lot from others and where they fish.   It is also safer to walk on ice that is well traveled and known to be safe.
  • Try ice fishing at night.  The bite really picks up once the sun sets.  Places like Upper Red and Leech Lake have an excellent night bite that is mostly untapped.
  • Make an effort to use contour maps to learn the best spots on each lake.  Focus more of your time on likely spots and your catch rate will go up.  If you struggle with finding fish, our article on ice fishing without electronics will help solve your problem.
  • Ask the local tackle shops and your fellow anglers what lures and bait are hot today.  Don’t be shy, most anglers love sharing their knowledge when you are new to ice fishing.