From north to south and east to west, Minnesota is akin to a playground for hunters and fishermen. Whether they're fishing for walleyes or muskies, walking the woods for ruffed grouse or the fields for pheasants, or sitting in a deer stand and waiting patiently for a whitetail to walk by, sportsmen's opportunities in many ways are limited only by their imaginations and willingness to do a little exploring.
While some people prefer to stay close to home, the more adventurous among us might enjoy hitting the road and giving a look at some new fields, waters or woods. One of the best ways for them to do that is to find a spot where they can rest their heads after a long day in the field, but where they're close to an abundance of outdoor activities. Minnesota's state parks offer unique opportunities to do just that, and it's because they offer abundant lodging options — generally at fair prices. The lodging options at some parks offer hotel-like accommodations, while others provide little more than shelter from the elements.
Following are three state parks scattered throughout our state, along with some of the hunting and fishing opportunities that await sportsmen who visit them.
FORT RIDGELY STATE PARK
Fort Ridgely State Park, which covers just more than 1,000 acres south of Fairfax in Nicollet County, sits atop a plateau that overlooks the Minnesota River valley. The park features a 31-space campground as well as two cabins. The campground and one of the cabins close the third Sunday of October, while the second cabin — known as the Chalet, which is heated and features a full kitchen — is open year 'round. As a result, the park is a good lodging option for hunters who want to explore the white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasant and waterfowl hunting opportunities.
Minnesota's duck season generally opens in late September (check the regulations booklet for specific dates), and the pheasant season opens the second Saturday in October. Depending on the species targeted, there are a wide variety of public- or quasi-public-land options within easy driving distance of Fort Ridgely. Among the nearby WMAs where hunters can find pheasants are the 91-acre Minnriver WMA, the 514-acre Rosenau-Lambrecht WMA, and the 385-acre Fritsche Creek WMA.
Just a bit more than 20 miles to the west of the state park — between the towns of Morton and Redwood Falls — hunters will find a cluster of WMAs that offer good pheasant-hunting opportunities. Pheasant hunters need only a small-game license and a state pheasant stamp.
Hunters also have the option of hunting on land enrolled in the state's Walk-In Access program, under which private landowners allow hunters on their land. Hunters on those lands must purchase a special WIA endorsement, and should check the DNR Web site, dnr.state.mn.us, for a list of lands enrolled in the program.
To the east of Fort Ridgely State Park is Swan Lake, which is a historically important waterfowl lake. The shallow lake, covering 9,000 acres, attracts a good mix of local and migratory birds. The Minnesota DNR has worked to maintain good water quality and abundant submerged vegetation in the lake to maintain its attractiveness to birds. Hunters in boats can launch from one of three public access sites around the lake. On the southeastern side of the lake is public land from which hunters without boats can target ducks and Canada geese.
The Minnesota River Valley on each side of Fort Ridgely State Park also affords hunters with good options for archery deer hunting. That season runs from the middle of September through the end of the year. In addition to holding good numbers of deer, the river valley also has a reputation for producing trophy bucks. Killing deer on public land can be difficult, but hunters who get away from the crowds — and from roads — can increase their chances of finding a big buck. Archery licenses are available on an over-the-counter basis.
Fort Ridgely itself is interesting, particularly to hunters who appreciate history. On the site that is now the state park there once was a settlement called Fort Ridgely, established in the 1850s. Dakota Indians attacked the fort twice during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and the fort was closed 10 years later. The state first purchased part of what became the state park in 1896 to memorialize those who fought in the war.
72158 County Road 30 - 507-426-7840
Lodging: 2 cabins, ($60-$80 per night)
Campground: 31 spaces; 15 with hookups ($15-$23 per night)
On-Site: Firewood and ice available at the park office.
ITASCA STATE PARK
The Mississippi River begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico at Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, where visitors have a chance to step across the river at its origin. The park encompasses more than 33,000 acres and offers a variety of year-round lodging options. It's situated in an area that affords fishermen easy access to some of Minnesota's most productive bodies of water. The park itself includes more than 100 lakes, and is less than 40 miles from Lake Bemidji, Cass Lake, and Leech Lake. It's about 50 miles from Lake Winnibigoshish. Or, make a day-trip to Upper Red Lake, about 90 miles north of the park, offering excellent walleye fishing.
There are six public boat accesses around the 6,600-acre Lake Bemidji, adjacent to the town of the same name. According to the DNR, Lake Bemidji boasts "consistent natural reproduction and decent growth rates," which make it "one of the mot consistent walleye fisheries in the Bemidji area."
The structure-laden lake has about 5 feet of water clarity, which means anglers typically can catch walleyes throughout the day. Bemidji also has a strong and growing reputation for producing muskies longer than 50 inches.
At 16,000 acres, there are no shortage of fishing options on Cass Lake, which includes three public accesses. The lake has a strong walleye population and "is comprised of good numbers of fish distributed among numerous size and age classes," according to our DNR. The lake also sustains a trophy muskie fishery, and in terms of northern pike, it "remains a place to catch good numbers of medium-sized fish (22 to 30 inches)." Winter is the time of year when its yellow perch fishing shines.
Leech Lake, which spans more than 110,000 acres, is the third largest entirely within Minnesota. Eight public access sites line its shores.
"Walleyes, northern pike, and muskellunge are the primary predator species, while yellow perch and cisco serve as the principal forage," claims the DNR. "Leech Lake is well known among anglers as a tremendous multi-species fishery."
Anglers on the lake are allowed to keep four walleyes, but must release any between 20 and 26 inches. Their possession limit may include one walleye longer than 26 inches.
Anglers who want to fish on Lake Winnibigoshish's more than 56,000 acres, have eight public access sites. The lake's walleye population gets a "healthy," rating from our DNR. Yellow perch are a particularly important part of the lake's fish community — both as a forage species and as a target of fishermen. That's especially true during the winter months.
Fishermen who stay at Itasca State Park and who don't want to leave it have a number of good fishing options. Chief among them is the 1,077-acre Lake Itasca, which forms the headwaters of the Mississippi River and has two public access sites. The lake has walleyes, but also boasts good numbers of other fish, including panfish and northern pike. While the latter trend toward the smaller side, they provide an excellent angling opportunity.
36750 Main Park Drive - 218-699-7251
Lodging: 23 lodge rooms ($85-$150 per night); 13 cabins ($110-$240 per night)
Campground: 223 drive-in sites; 160 with hookups ($15-$23 per night)
On-Site: Restaurant, boat and motor rental, dogs are allowed in the park.
ST. CROIX STATE PARK
Located in east-central Minnesota on the state's border with Wisconsin, St. Croix State Park serves as a good headquarters for both hunters and fishermen throughout the year. The 34,000-acre park isn't far off Interstate 35 and includes a wide variety of lodging options on a year-round basis. Two rivers flow through the park: the Kettle and the St. Croix. In 1994 the Kettle produced our state-record lake sturgeon, a 94-pound, 4-ounce monster that measured 70 inches. The Kettle also produced the state-record river redhorse of 12 pounds, 10 ounces.
According to the DNR, the most common game fish in the Kettle River are channel catfish, northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleyes. Anglers have the opportunity to catch a broad array of species. While fishermen can use small motorboats on parts of the Kettle River, canoes are the recommended means of travel on most of it. However, anyone who launches a craft on the Kettle must be aware of some dangerous portions of the river, especially the one known as Hells Gate in Banning State Park. "This area must be avoided or portaged around as it is extremely dangerous," warns the DNR.
The Rum River, which is southeast of St. Croix State Park, is another good option for anglers who want to launch a canoe and enjoy some solitude. In that portion of the river nearest the park, there's good fishing for northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleyes. "The gradient in this section is low, averaging 1 foot per mile, with few rocks or hazards, making the river ideal for a scenic fishing trip," according to the DNR. Other good rivers in the area for canoeing and fishing are the Lower Tamarack, Snake and Pine.
The St. Croix River also provides excellent fishing and more access to anglers who prefer fishing from large craft, or from shore. This northern section of the St. Croix is far more riverine and secluded than the lower section of the river around Stillwater, where it is wider, more like a lake. Yet the Upper St. Croix provides fantastic fishing, especially for anglers who want to catch smallmouth bass on fly-fishing equipment. Twenty-inch smallmouths aren't unheard of on this stretch of the St. Croix, which also produces good walleye fishing.
In addition to fishing, hunters can use St. Croix State Park as a logical headquarters. One of the nearby notable locations is the Sandstone WMA, which is north of the park. The 2,000-acre WMA is especially productive for ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse and for woodcock. To the east of the park in Kanabec County are several smaller WMAs where hunters can pursue ruffed grouse and woodcock.
While hunting generally isn't allowed in Minnesota's state parks, the DNR each year holds special hunts aimed at controlling white-tailed deer. St. Croix State Park is one of the locations of those special hunts. Hunters who wish to participate must apply for a permit. Watch the DNR Web site for more information.
Given the size of the park, there is a strong deer population. Hunters willing to head deep into the woods can get away from others and have an opportunity to see multiple deer with the chance to harvest a trophy.
30065 St. Croix Park Road - 320-384-6591
Lodging: 2 guesthouses ($215 per night); 6 cabins ($85 per night)
Campground: 211 drive-in sites; 81 with hookups ($15-$23 per night)
On-Site: Ice and firewood are available.