Northern Minnesota Fish Species



Muskie: 54 pounds, Lake Winnibigoshish (Cass and Itasca counties), 1957.

Tiger Muskie: 34 pounds, 12 ounces, Lake Elmo (Washington County), 1999.

The muskellunge is one of the largest and most elusive fish that swims in Minnesota. A muskie will eat fish and sometimes ducklings and even small muskrats. It waits in weed beds and then lunges forward, clamping its large, tooth-lined jaws onto the prey. The muskie then gulps down the stunned or dead victim head first.

Muskies are light colored and usually have dark bars running up and down their long bodies. That’s the opposite of northern pike, which have light markings on a dark body. Muskies are silver, light green, or light brown. The foolproof way to tell a muskie from a northern is to count the pores on the underside of the jaw: A muskie has six or more. A northern has five or fewer.

A sterile hybrid of the northern pike and the muskie–the tiger muskie–is stocked in several heavily fish lakes in the Twin Cities metro region. This species has dark markings on a light background, as on muskies, but has rounded tail fins, as on northern pike.

Northern Pike


45 pounds, 12 ounces, Basswood Lake (Lake County), 1929.

This voracious predator is one of the easiest fish to catch because it so willingly bites lures or bait. What’s more, northerns produce chunky white fillets that many anglers say taste as good as walleyes. Most northerns caught by fishing run 2 to 3 pounds, though trophies over 20 pounds are caught each year. A close cousin to the muskellunge, the northern pike lives in nearly all of Minnesota’s lakes and streams.

The quickest way to tell a northern pike from a muskie is to note that the northern has light markings on a dark body background, while muskies generally have dark markings on a light background. A foolproof method is to count the pores on the underside of the jaw: the northern has five or fewer; the muskie has six or more. Northerns also have rounded tail fins, compared to the pointy tail fins of a muskie.



17 pounds, 8 ounces, Seagull River (Cook County). 1979.

The walleye is the most sought-after fish in Minnesota. Its thick, white fillets, handsome shape and coloring, and elusive nature make it the ultimate prize among anglers. Each year, anglers in Minnesota keep roughly 3.5 million walleyes totaling 4 million pounds. The average walleye caught and kept is about 14 inches long and weighs slightly more than 1 pound. The walleye is named for its pearlescent eye, which is caused by a reflective layer of pigment, called the tapetum lucidum, that helps it see and feed at night or in murky water.

A close cousin of the walleye is the sauger. Sauger have a more limited distribution than walleyes, and they don’t grow as large. The two species look similar, but you can tell them apart by looking at the tip of the lower part of the tail. That part of the tail is white on a walleye, but not on a sauger.

To ensure that lakes produce enough walleyes to keep up with growing angler demand, the DNR protects habitat, limits the catch through regulations, and stocks fish where natural reproduction is limited and other desirable fish species will not be harmed. In recent years, the DNR has also instituted special regulations that protect medium-sized walleyes on several lakes to increase the average size of walleyes that anglers can catch.



Trout, Brook: 6 pounds, 5.6 ounces, Pigeon River (Cook County), 2000.

Trout, Brown: 16 pounds, 12 ounces, Lake Superior (St. Louis County), 1989.

Trout, Lake: 43 pounds, 8 ounces, Lake Superior (Cook County), 1955.

Trout, Rainbow (Steelhead): 17 pounds, 6 ounces, Knife River (Lake County), 1974.

Splake: 13 pounds, 5.44 ounces, Larson Lake (Itasca County), 2001.

Minnesota has two native trout species: the brook trout (“brookies”) and the lake trout. These species belong to a group of trout know as char. The other trout now in this state are brown trout and rainbow trout. Both were introduced to Minnesota in the late 1800s. The rainbow is native to western North America and the brown is native to Germany. Brown trout are the hardiest of the trout species and as a result can tolerate water warmer and less clear than rainbows and especially brook trout require.

Most trout streams are in southeastern Minnesota and along the North Shore. The southern streams have mainly browns with some rainbows and, in the cold clear headwaters, brook trout. The northern streams have mostly brook trout. Lake trout are found in Lake Superior and in many deep, cold, clean northern lakes.

A type of large rainbow trout that lives most of its life in Lake Superior and spawns in large North Shore rivers is called a steelhead. A cross between a lake trout and a brook trout, called a splake, is also found in some northern lakes.

Largemouth Bass


8 pounds, 13 ounces, Tetonka Lake (LeSueur County), 1994

This is one of the scrappiest fish that swims. An increasing number of anglers throughout the state are learning that largemouth bass, with their jolting strikes and wild airborne leaps, are an exciting fish to catch. And increasingly, Minnesota is becoming nationally known for its largemouth bass. Professional bass fishing tournaments are held in state lakes and rivers throughout the summer.

Largemouth bass look similar to their close cousin, the smallmouth. Often they are found in the same waters. To tell the two apart, look at the closed mouth. If it extends back beyond the back of the eye, the fish is a largemouth. If it goes only to the middle of the eye, it’s a smallmouth.

Smallmouth Bass


8 pounds, West Battle Lake (Otter Tail County), 1948.

Sometimes called a “bronzeback” for its brassy brown hue, the smallmouth is one of the strongest fish for its weight. Many anglers who hook a 2-pounder will swear it’s twice that big until the fish is in the net. Smallmouth are native to the Mississippi River watershed. They are abundant in warm southeast Minnesota rivers, central Minnesota lakes, and in northern waters such as Vermilion Lake and big Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lakes, where the species was introduced in the late 1800s.

Smallmouth bass look similar to their close cousin, the largemouth. Often they are found in the same waters. To tell the two apart, look at the closed mouth. If it extends only to the middle of the eye, it’s a smallmouth. If it goes way beyond the back of the eye, the fish is a largemouth.



Catfish, Channel: 38 pounds, Mississippi River (Hennepin County), 1975.

Catfish, Flathead: 70 pounds, St. Croix River (Washington County), 1970.

Bullhead, Black: 3 pounds, 13 ounces, Reno Lake (Pope County), 1997.

Bullhead, Brown: 7 pounds, 1 ounce, Shallow Lake (Itasca County), 1974.

Bullhead, Yellow: 3 pounds, 10.25 ounces, Osakis Lake (Todd County), 2000.

Minnesota has two catfish species–the channel and the much larger flathead–and three species of bullhead: black, brown, and yellow. These fish are found throughout the state but are most prevalent in warm, fertile rivers and lakes in western and southern Minnesota. The Red, Minnesota, Mississippi, and St. Croix rivers all are known for their excellent catfishing.

To tell a channel catfish from the flathead, look at the lower jaw andthe tail. The flathead has a slightly protruding lower jaw, like an underbite.And its tail is square, where the channel’s is forked.

Brown and black bullheads are hard to tell apart. Yellow bullheads canbe distinguished by their white barbels (whiskers) under the lower jawrather than black as on the other two species.

All catfish and bullheads have a sharp spine at the leading edges ofthe dorsal (top) fin and two pectoral (side) fins. These spines, not thefish’s whiskers (called barbels) are what “sting” carelessanglers. When the fish is alarmed, it raises and locks its spike finsinto an upright position. The pain comes from when a person accidentallypokes himself on the spine, not from any poison released by the fish.Once you learn where the spines are located, catfish and bullheads areas safe to hold as any fish.



Crappie, Black: 5-0, Vermillion River (Dakota County), 1940.

Crappie, White: 3-15, Lake Constance (Wright County), 2002.

Anglers love crappies. Though the walleye is the state fish, crappies and bluegills are caught most often. Crappies bite readily and produce sweet-tasting fillets. There are actually two types of crappies: the black and the white. They are tough to tell apart. Both travel in schools and feed on small fish and aquatic insects. If you catch a crappie, it’s most likely a black crappie, which is the more widely distributed of the two species, occurring in most lakes throughout the state. The black crappie prefers deeper, cooler, clearer water than the white crappie does.



Bluegill: 2 pounds, 13 ounces, Alice Lake (Hubbard County), 1948.

Pumpkinseed: 1 pound, 6 ounces, Leech Lake (Cass County), 1999.

Minnesota has several sunfish species, but the most popular with anglers are the bluegill and the pumpkinseed. Both are found in most of the state’s lakes and streams. Both spawn from late May well into the summer. The bluegill tends to grow larger than the pumpkinseed. Though both have a blue spot on the ear flap, the pumpkinseed also has some bright orange at the very edge of the flap. Also, bluegills tend to be mostly olive colored while pumkinseeds are more orange colored.

Sunfish are particularly prone to “stunting.” Lakes that have good spawning habitat but not much food can produce swarms of small adult sunnies that never grow larger than four or five inches.