Minnesota offers plenty of great fishing waters, and most anglers have their favorite spots to cast for trophies. But with temperatures warming up and the school year winding down, this is the perfect time to focus on a different kind of destination: the best locations for a family fishing trip. The goal this month is to find waters where your kids can actually catch fish, and perhaps enjoy some fun diversions along the way. Here are a few places where you can make some memories.
One year when the kids were much smaller, my wife suggested we venture out of the state for our summer getaway. I almost fell over backward!
“Say what?” was something like my response. So I launched into my case for staying right here where summer days are long and we have no end of family-friendly adventure opportunities. Here’s about what I said, and have explained to other folks many times since.
Sure, there are other places to go, both around the Great Lakes area and even up into Canada. But three factors make me always want to stay right here for a summer getaway.
One: Who wants to drive that far out of state with kids and family in tow? The shorter the trip the better. Staying in-state solves that dilemma.
Two: It really is hard to beat our fishing. Do you know what people in other states would do to have the kind of home-water fishing we enjoy right here? And there are plenty of places where you can have Mom, Dad, Gramps, Grandma, all the kids and cousins and friends, and even goofy old Uncle Vince and smoochy old Aunt Martha, catching fish.
Three: There are so many corners of our state to explore, I can practically guarantee you there’s somewhere new to discover. Love the north woods? Try the prairie. Always hit a lake? Try a river. Tired of coming up empty-handed on persnickety walleyes? Head for a weedy lake chock-full of sunfish and ravenous bass.
Not to mention that helping our own resorts, small towns, bait shops, restaurants, shops and other vacation-type businesses is just, well, good business for our state.
So let’s take a look around Minnesota and identify some great corners to try a summer vacation with our families this summer. The only requirements to make this list? Excellent fishing a family can enjoy. Good available lodging, and plenty of additional activities and attractions to keep everybody happy, because, let’s face it, you just can’t fish every minute of every day. Well, not when the family’s along anyway!
A PARTY IN PARK RAPIDS
Park Rapids doesn’t get the summer attention that Bemidji does to the north. But this a great area to bring a family. Over 400 area fishing lakes beckon (we’ll outline a few below), family-style resorts abound, the town is as quaint and picturesque as you’ll ever want to see. In fact, you’ll think you were in the 1960s or ’70s when you drive through downtown Park Rapids. And Itasca State Park — the source of the mighty Mississippi River and something every Minnesotan should see — is nearby.
No bad choices here! But look to Fish Hook, Big and Little Mantrap, Long and the Crow Wing Chain for good bluegill and bass fishing to keep a family active and catching fish.
An excellent system of family-style resorts caters to every kind of group.
Along The Way
Itasca State Park is a must. Golf courses abound in the area. Take a bike ride to Walker on the paved, family-friendly Heartland State Trail. Visit parkrapids.com and browse the “What To Do” page!
AITKIN EARNS HIGH HONORS
Everybody knows about wonderful Grand Rapids to the north. But that means a lot of folks blow by Aitkin, and that’s a mistake. Similar to Park Rapids and Hubbard County, Aitkin and Aitkin County are very special places with good fishing lakes, a laid-back atmosphere, a healthy vacation economy, plenty to do. And it’s all within a couple of hours’ drive of the metro area, to boot — a bonus for folks getting out of town but appreciating less travel time. You still get it all!
With 365 lakes within 10 miles of Aitkin’s only stoplight, how do you choose? Starters for daytime panfishing activity (and some evening walleyes) include Cedar, Farm Island, Big Sandy, Minnewawa, and Aitkin Lake itself.
The friendly, family-run resorts (such as Sunset Bay on Cedar) are your best bet for a true on-the-lake, family-style getaway. Whitewood Resort is a great place for a family getaway and good panfishing on Spirit Lake. Visit whitewoodresort.com.
Along The Way
The Aitkin County Historical Society gives a fascinating glimpse into the area’s heritage. Take a half-day canoe ride down the Ripple, Swan or Snake River. Visit the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Savanna Portage State Park, both great bird-watching spots. Visit ci.aitkin.mn.us and aitkin.com/outdoor-recreation/.
MILLE LACS MEANS ADVENTURE
My wife always shied us away from Mille Lacs for a summer getaway. “Too big and scary!” was her thought. But those of us who fish it know you just treat the Big Pond with utmost respect and only go out when conditions are right. Once we tried it, she was hooked! There’s nothing like pulling a kid on a tube in the middle of Mille Lacs on a blue-skied day — and then slip-bobbering for walleyes that evening. Or, maybe even better, heading to a rocky reef and tangling with feisty smallmouths! Plus, there’s so much else to do in this unique corner of Minnesota.
Mille Lacs isn’t a panfish hole but it is a smallmouth bass hotspot, and families can get in on the action if they head for rockpiles (the south end of the lake is prime). Crimp down your barbs for catch-and-release, and head out with crawlers or leeches. For a change of pace, drift a weedbed with sucker minnows below bobbers and tangle with a Mille Lacs pike. Kids love catching pike!
The lake is lined with every kind of lodging imaginable, from luxurious and fun Grand Casino, to family-run motels, to old-fashioned Minnesota-style resorts, to cabin rentals.
Along The Way
A must-see is the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading post on the lake’s west side. You’ll discover the deep Native American heritage and history that defines the area. Adults can visit Grand Casino for a little betting action, and some great shows. Go to Father Hennepin State Park on the lake’s south side and spend a day on the beach. Bring a fairy-wand net and let the kids hunt for crayfish; it will occupy them for hours! Bike the paved Mille Lacs Soo Line Trail. Golf Izaty’s, Fiddlestix or Northwoods. Visit millelacs.com. This great site is pretty much your one-stop shop for starting to plan, and then fanning out on options for a Mille Lacs area vacation.
GLACIAL HILLS AND LAKES IN GLENWOOD
Who says you have to head north for a great Minnesota vacation? Whenever I come over the hill on Highway 28 and see Glenwood and Lake Minnewaska sweeping across the western Minnesota landscape below, I feel like I am home again. You will too. This small, friendly town in Polk County ranks among Minnesota’s most classic and picturesque. There’s a lake right on the edge of downtown for gosh sakes, and that lake is chock-full of good panfishing, plus hungry fighter-sized bass, to keep family fisherpersons of all ages busy. The surrounding glacial hills are a hoot to explore, too.
The feature lake is Minnewaska, and it is a beauty. Fish the edges of reed beds for good sunfish action with the kids. Bass fishing is good there too. Other good lakes are Amelia, Johanna, Pelican and Villard.
For an easy stay, try the GrandStay right in Glenwood, or the Best Value or Oak Tree. Hunt’s Resort, right on Minnewaska, is very family-friendly and has an RV park too. Camp at Glacial Lakes or Glendalough State Park.
Along The Way
Visit beautiful Glacial Lakes and Glendalough State Park and do some fishing on extremely beautiful Annie Battle Lake, in Glendalough. Go bike riding on the Glacial Lakes State Trail; it’s paved. Visit the beach in Starbuck.
Visit glenwoodlakesarea.org. Be sure to check out the Minnewaska Area Visitors Guide to start your planning. Also, visit Koep’s Bait (koepsbait.com) when in town for advice, gear, bait, and fishing updates. Minnewaska Bait & Tackle in Starbuck is your other go-to spot.
SOUTHEAST BLUFFS AND TROUT
Who says you have to go to a lake for a great vacation? Lots of people forget about Minnesota’s trout. But they reside in the unglaciated southeastern bluff country of our state, in limestone streams fed by cold springs. And if you know where to go and how to fish those creeks, anybody can get in on the action. Small towns abound with lodging opportunities, but camping is always a great option there too.
Get going with Whitewater State Park’s family-friendly trout fishing opportunities. Forestville/Mystery Cave is another great state park with blue-ribbon trout fishing.
Camp at Whitewater or Forestville. Private campgrounds abound. Or stay in picturesque Lanesboro, only a half-hour drive away.
Along The Way
Hiking is spectacular in the bluffs. Walk the 2-mile Trout Run Creek Trail. Bike the nearby Root River State Trail. Whitewater State Park always has great naturalist programs.
Visit dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/whitewater and dnr.state.m.us/state parks/forestville mystery cave.
ESCAPE ON THE CROIX
Sometimes you don’t even need a town around to have a good time. In fact, that can be part of an area’s attraction! So it is with the St. Croix River. What a jewel, right there for your enjoyment almost in the back yard of the metro area! And it certainly is worth a drive from anywhere else in the state. The idea here is a canoe-camp-fish trio package, with the focus on low-key family fun and appreciating all the nature this river has to offer. If you know how to go at it, the fishing is nothing short of spectacular for smallmouth bass, but also bonus fish like catfish, eater-sized walleyes, and fun species such as redhorse, sheepshead, and even small sturgeon. Sturgeon must be released.
Keep it simple with split shot rigs, or a light slip-sinker setup. Bring along a cooler of nightcrawlers, and just catch fish in the holes, eddies and runs. Camp along the way.
Along The Way
You’ll be canoeing, fishing, setting up tents, enjoying campfires, wading in the river, watching birds — what kid could hate that? Visit nps.gov/sacn/planyourvisit/camping. That page gets you going on some of the places and rules for camping along the Croix, a National Scenic Riverway.
GUNFLINT TRAIL: THE TRUE NORTH
OK, we’ve got one ultra-classic summer family fishing vacation concept. To me, there’s nothing more classic than a summer session somewhere on the Gunflint Trail. Head up to Grand Marais and then go north from there on good old Cook County 12 (the Trail) and you’re going back in time in the real Minnesota Northwoods. While there are a lot of great Boundary Water Canoe Area opportunities here, there are also plenty of camping and resort options as you get up the trail. And of course, there is no shortage of places to fish.
Gunflint, Saganaga and other large lakes get a lot of the attention, but a family would be well off on one of the area’s smaller options too.
Good lodges abound along the trail. National Forest Campgrounds are fun too!
Along The Way
Take a hike on a Superior National Forest trail. Rent canoes at an area outfitter and take a day trip into the Boundary Waters. Drive down to Grand Marais for a day of sightseeing. Go to visitcookcounty.com. The Gunflint is a big place, and you can start narrowing options there.
There’s no need to go anywhere except Minnesota for your summer family getaway. We have the fishing, the lodging, plenty to do, and the longest days of the year in which to enjoy it all with those you love.