BEST FISHING HOLE (RURAL) - 1999
For any angler who enjoys a measure of solitude, the dizzying proliferation of Jet Skis and high-tech watercraft on Minnesota's 12,304 lakes presents an especially ugly dilemma: Fish amid the nightmare on prime waters or risk an empty stringer in less productive spots. Fortunately, there are still a few overlooked gems out there, particularly on the state's smaller rivers and streams. By our reckoning, few compare with the lovely, relatively isolated middle stretches of the St. Louis River. A little more than three hours from the cities, some of its sweetest points are surprisingly accessible: Just make your way to I-35 north, catch the Hwy. 33 exit to Cloquet, and head west on Hwy. 2; on the approach to the bridge crossing the St. Louis--a breathtaking view of the river valley's exposed glacial outwash serves as your cue--pull over on the north side of the road, scramble down the embankment, and presto--fishing nirvana. Given its roiling rapids and submerged boulders, few power boaters hazard this part of the river. Good thing, too. The absence of much angling pressure here has preserved a healthy population of smallmouth bass (mainly one- to two-pounders, with the occasional lunker) available to any wader with the gumption and balance to hopscotch the slippery rocks through moderate current. Most Minnesota anglers obsess over their quest for finicky walleyes (tasty, but overrated as game) and muskies (harder than hell to catch). You'll find none of those fish here. No matter: Few freshwater species rival the smallmouth for sport. They are spectacular fighters, ready biters, and, thankfully, largely overlooked as quarry. Bring a pair of wading shoes, a light casting outfit, and some smaller crankbaits. Cast into deep eddies downstream from the rapids. Enjoy the quiet. And don't forget the fillet knife.