April 19, 2016
No, summer hasn't quite arrived. It isn't too far away, though, and chances are good that you've had summer fishing plans on your mind. You may even be debating whether to use vacation days for family outings once school is out, or to sneak out on the water and fish. If so, why not combine those ideas with a family fishing vacation?
Minnesota doesn't lack great places to fish, and you most likely have your favorite destinations. However, family fishing trips call for a little different planning. If your children are young or relatively new to fishing, it's important to pick spots where access is quick, tactics are simple, and rewards are likely. Fish don't have to be big, but some kind of action is important. Also, if anyone in the family is even a bit lukewarm about fishing, it's important to pick a vacation destination that offers other attractions.
With such things in mind, we've selected four spots in different parts of the state that lend themselves nicely to family fishing vacations.
Ely is best known as the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That's understandable as it is the final outfitting, lodging and supplying stop for many wilderness explorers before they venture "into the bush." A bigger appeal for the average family, though, comes in the countless area lakes that are not within the wilderness and therefore offer easy access for everyone, but still have that wild Northcountry feel.
Some lakes near town have good public access where you can launch a boat or fish from the shore, and area outfitters rent canoes that can be taken out for a day on various lakes in the region. For a family vacation, though, it's nice to stay right by the water and have lake access just footsteps from wherever you are sleeping. Fortunately, most resorts in this area are on the water and have good facilities for easy family fishing outings.
Silver Rapids Lodge (silverrapidslodge.com), just four miles out of Ely, is a good example. The lodge sits on a peninsula and is therefore bounded by water on three sides. Guests have easy access to four connected lakes. Anglers catch everything from sunfish to big pike from the lodge docks. Rental boats provide easy access to the lakes, which are fairly small and loaded with visible structure that makes finding fish easy.
Most Ely-area lakes are modest in size, with points, islands and coves creating plentiful obvious structure and making the water feel less open and therefore better suited for fishing from canoes or other small boats. Common species that are easy to target there include bluegills, yellow perch, crappies, northern pike, walleyes and smallmouth bass.
If you have young children, start at the lodge docks or possibly rent a boat for half a day. Either way, rig everyone with simple bobber rigs, set a couple of feet deep and baited with wigglers or pieces of nightcrawlers for bluegills, or minnows for crappies. Those tactics are based on recommendations from the lodge marina or a local bait shop. Panfish are likely to keep the bobbers dancing and children smiling. And don't forget that any time a bobber darts out of sight, there could actually be a big pike or bass on the line!
If your crew includes more experienced anglers who prefer casting lures and targeting something bigger than panfish, good lure options include grubs and small crankbaits for walleyes, in-line spinners and poppers for pike, and any of the above for smallmouths. You can simply follow the shore, casting to cattail banks, downed trees, boulders, points and other obvious cover and structure, but don't overlook any rocky reefs that are out from the bank but that you are able to glimpse.
Along The Way
Beyond the obvious hiking trails and canoe routes, which provide endless possibilities for family play in the Ely area, cool stops you might want to plan time for include the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center and the Dorothy Molter Museum. Molter, commonly known as the "Root Beer Lady" for her famous homemade root beer that she would serve to visitors, was the BWCAW's last resident, who lived most of her 79 years on Knife Lake, deep in the wilderness. To learn more about things to do and lodging options around Ely, visit ely.org.
ITASCA STATE PARK
Lake Itasca stands out from thousands of Minnesota lakes and enjoys national fame because it is the recognized headwater of the mighty Mississippi River. Itasca State Park also makes a fine family fishing destination, though, so if you've never walked across the headwaters (which everyone should do at least once), why not plan an Itasca fishing trip this summer?
Located about 30 miles southwest of Bemidji, Itasca State Park is Minnesota's oldest state park. It spreads over more than 32,000 acres and includes more than 100 lakes. Lake Itasca is the largest and the most accessible. It provides excellent opportunities for fun and easy outings. The lake has a fishing pier and boat launch, and a concessionaire, Itasca Sports, offers rental canoes and fishing boats. Lake Ozawindib, Elk Lake and Mary Lake also have boat launches.
Lake Itasca produces a lot of big bluegills and crappies, plus a mix of rock bass, perch and other panfish, and is therefore a great place to cast a grub or tiny crankbait on ultralight gear or to fish with a worm under a float. Plentiful pike, a decent population of fat walleyes and an occasional jumbo largemouth provide additional opportunities for larger fish.
Elk Lake, which is deep, clear and remote, and fairly small at 271 acres, provides the best opportunity for any "big game" anglers in your family who are willing to throw oversized lures all day. Elk supports an outstanding muskie population and in fact is used as a source for brood stock. All muskie fishing is catch-and-release.
Lake Ozawindib and Mary Lake are good lakes for canoe fishing. Both support diverse, high-quality panfish populations and lend themselves well to simple outings with small jigs or bait under floats for fast action from a mix of species. Miniature crankbaits like Rebel Micro Minnows and Micro Crawfish (which are barbless and therefore safer for little fingers) also offer good prospects for these lakes.
Along The Way
Naturally you need to check out the Mississippi headwaters while you're at Itasca. Just be careful crossing. The rocks are slick. Also plan time to explore the Jacob V. Browner Visitor Center, which is loaded with displays about park forests, wildlife and history and information about the Mississippi River. The park also offers outstanding opportunities for hiking in old growth pine forests, biking and wildlife watching. Overnight options include camping, cabins and lodge rooms.
If you live in or around the Twin Cities, a trip to a metro-area lake might not sound like a vacation. That said, if time is even somewhat limited and you like the sound of day trips or after-work outings that are likely to produce fun fishing action for the whole family, those waters included in the Fishing in Neighborhoods program absolutely warrant your attention. If you live somewhere else in the state and want to visit the cities for a Twins game or other activities, allow extra time (maybe even an overnight stay) to do a little fishing.
The FiN program is designed to enhance fisheries, improve access and build awareness of fishing within seven metro area counties. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources works together with regional parks and various municipalities to provide the best possible fishing through management practices that include fish stocking, fertilization, aeration and more, and through joint projects to provide better bank access and improve facilities for anglers. Management efforts emphasize species such as bluegills and catfish that provide the easiest of fishing for family groups.
The DNR has been stocking channel catfish in some metro-area lakes since 1997, and more than 25 lakes in the FiN program are considered catfish lakes. Some lakes get stocked with sub-adult fish that then have the opportunity to grow larger in those lakes. Others are stocked in season with adult fish, which typically weigh between 1 and 3 pounds.
Channel catfish make great targets for family fishing outings because they fight hard and are good on the table and because easy angling approaches work most adequately. Typically, the best way to catch channel catfish from a small lake is with a simple bottom rig that includes just enough weight to hold bottom and a small treble hook baited with a piece of chicken liver.
The starting point for a FiN lakes fishing outing is a visit to the FiN page on the DNR Web site (dnr.state.mn.us), which has a county-by-county breakdown of all waters that are currently in the program, fishing reports, a clickable map of catfish lakes, updates about stocking, and much more.
Along The Way
Things to do other than fishing in the Twin Cities could fill its own book, and much depends on your family's make up and interests. Complementary to Minneapolis/St. Paul fishing, though, metro area parks along the rivers provide surprisingly nice opportunities for hiking, bike riding, picnicking and more, and Minnehaha Falls always warrants a visit. You could spend a whole day with your family enjoying the zoo, gardens and other amusements at Como Park.
Moving to the southwestern corner of our state — one of only a couple of areas in Minnesota where there really aren't that many lakes — Lake Shetek provides everything needed for a nice family fishing outing. Although Shetek is fairly large, spreading over nearly 3,600 acres, its southern end is broken by islands, and the shore wraps around multiple points and bays, making fish-holding locations easier to recognize and the lake to fish more like smaller waters. Shetek, which sets along the eastern edge of the prairie region, is very shallow.
Lake Shetek is nutrient rich and normally stained, with sparse vegetation due to limitations on light penetration. Important fish cover includes rocks (both along the banks and offshore) and fallen trees. Fish also roam sand and mud flats. Shetek is best known as a walleye lake, and both walleyes and northern pike get stocked most years. Both black and white crappie call Shetek home, and the crappie there tend to get fat.
Although it doesn't get a lot of publicity, of extra interest for family fishing trips, Shetek Lake supports good populations of bullheads and channel catfish. Both kinds of cats will readily take nightcrawlers, chicken livers or manufactured catfish dip baits presented on the bottom. Good locations for catfishing include slightly deeper holes in the lake's main basin, at ends of points and on edges of reefs.
Lake Shetek State Park offers good access to the southern end of the lake, and the park rents fishing boats, canoes and kayaks. The park also puts family-friendly facilities such as restrooms and picnic areas within handy reach of the fishing and offers camping and four camper cabins.
Along The Way
An extensive trail system in Lake Shetek State Park includes an interpretive trail that leads to a 45-acre island by boardwalk. The park also has a swimming beach on the lake, a historic cabin, a monument remembering area settlers, and a 6-mile bicycle loop trail that connects the park with the nearby town of Currie. In town, you might also want to check out the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is in Walnut Grove, just northeast of the park.