By Glen Schmitt
Beltrami County’s Turtle River Chain of Lakes consists of 11 quality, multi-species fisheries. They’re popular fishing destinations for folks in the immediate area as well as those who travel south from Blackduck or north from Bemidji. Or from elsewhere.
The biggest body of water within the system is Turtle River Lake, located right off Highway 71 and in the town of the same name. It’s long been known as a fine walleye and panfish lake and, despite some measurable fishing pressure at times, its solid reputation remains intact.
“The entire chain are go-to lakes in this area,” said Andy Thompson, DNR assistant fisheries supervisor in Bemidji. “Turtle River really is a good multi-species lake with an emphasis on its panfish.”
Black crappies and bluegills are primary targets for many anglers who fish Turtle River. Crappies tend to receive more fishing pressure, especially during the ice-fishing season, but both offer plenty in the quality category.
During a DNR survey conducted last summer, crappies averaged nearly 10 inches in length, with slabs up to 12 inches sampled. Turtle River’s bluegills averaged 8 inches in length, but ‘gills over 9 inches are caught regularly.
“It has really big bluegills – some of the nicest in the area – and the crappies out there are nice, too,” said Carl Adams, of Timberline Sports and Tackle in Blackduck. “Nothing really changes on Turtle River. It’s always had bigger panfish and good numbers of them.”
The lake’s walleye population kind of mirrors its panfish: good numbers of fish that run a nice average size. Walleyes in the 16- to 18-inch class are quite common, and fish over 20 inches in length should be expected.
Turtle River Lake had not been stocked with walleyes for decades, but that changed in 2019, when 335,000 fry were stocked in the lake in response to low DNR gill-net catches in 2016, when nets averaged fewer than four fish per net.
For years, the lake’s walleyes benefited from strong natural reproduction and movement of fish between its connected lakes to maintain a robust walleye fishery. In recent years, however, several stream habitat-improvement projects have allowed for even easier and more consistent fish movement between the lakes as well.
Based on angler success during the past several years and a spike in walleye numbers during last summer’s survey, Turtle River Lake’s walleye population appears to be doing just fine.
“It has a lot of walleyes in it, but it’s probably an underused walleye lake,” Adams said. “The average size is really nice, and I catch at least one walleye over 20 inches almost every time I’m on it.”
Northern pike are abundant, but most are on the small side. The lake has had a 24- to 36-inch protected slot in place for pike during the past 20 years, with the intent to increase the size structure of its pike.
According to Thompson, the regulation hasn’t met its objective. There are some nice pike in the lake, but their overall size structure hasn’t improved much, and in the 2020 survey, gill nets averaged 10 pike per lift – the highest ever recorded.
The lake seems to have all the qualities to produce girthy pike: good habitat, tullibees and whitefish for forage, and enough deep, cool-water refuge acreage. But not much has changed.
“I’d say the pike are of moderate quality, not necessarily a complete hammerhandle lake,” Thompson said. “But at the same time, it should have nicer pike in it. We’ll be reviewing the current regulation this year.”
Largemouth bass are considered a low-density, high-quality species in Turtle River Lake. Smallmouth bass have started to show up recently as well. They’ve filtered in from the other lakes in the system, and people are now catching them.