Destination: Doing the Lake in Mille Lacs

This four-season playground boasts a mix of sport, history, and leisure galore

A burst of color erupts from the sky over Lake Mille Lacs.
A burst of color erupts from the sky over Lake Mille Lacs

photo by Kristine Leuze

A pale lemon sun is half-risen over Lake Mille Lacs’ dark-blue horizon, and after one cup of coffee we’re only half-awake. I gaze through the window at the long beach, trying to calculate how many feet the frozen ice stretches before it breaks into open water.

We’ve landed a piece of prime Saturday-morning real estate in Garrison, a village on the lake’s northwest shore: a lake-view booth at Svoboda’s Spotlite Cafe. It’s the local version of breakfast nirvana, with Alpine-style wood paneling, massive omelets, and servers who could gracefully do their jobs blindfolded.

Across the formica booth, my sister Jenny is lost in her newspaper. “Are we insane?” I ask.

She nods, caught up in the thrill of a toddler-free weekend breakfast—a fresh-baked cinnamon roll and a newspaper—with a lake view to boot. “Probably,” she says, smiling.

Outside, it’s 19 degrees with 15 mile-per-hour winds, and in an hour, we’re going fishing.

A man fishing on Lake Mille Lacs in the the winter.
The fishing is still a draw during Mille Lacs’ colder months. Layer up, and get out there.

photo by B.A.S.S.

Not ice fishing, mind you. December through March, the lake becomes a winter village populated by all manner of fish houses, from tiny pop-up tents to log cabin-style bunkhouses tricked out with recliners and stereo systems. It’s far too cold to swim—we’d perish of hypothermia in 15 minutes—but it’s technically not winter, either.

But that’s the beauty of a four-season playground like Mille Lacs: It offers plenty of adventures during the in-between seasons for intrepid souls who don’t mind a little DIY action. In our case, this means, as our fishing guide has warned us, that we might need to chop a path through the ice.

An hour later, fighting off a serious pancake coma, we’re sitting in a sparkly red speed boat, flying over icy swells of waves that are surprisingly big considering we’re on fresh water. As the boat rocks on the crest of another big one, I reach for my life jacket. Erik Jacobson, our fearless navigator, is one of the unofficial Muskie Kings of Mille Lacs.

The 15-foot-long fiberglass walleye statue in Garrison, Minnesota.
Visit the 15-foot-long fiberglass walleye statue in nearby Garrison

photo by Chris Gerlach

Together with his fishing buddy Brian Hanson, with whom he runs the fishing video series “Just Big Muskies,” Jacobson has caught more than 70 muskies measuring beyond 50 inches. We might be in the self-proclaimed walleye capital of the world, but this morning, it’s muskies—large, striped, flat-headed members of the pike family—that we’re after.

A modern-day Viking of sorts, Jacobson is tall and cheerful, and emanates ruddy good health. His mother’s death in 1996 “made us reflect on how short life can actually be,” so a long-harbored desire to live up north and run a fishing resort became a priority. He left a design job in downtown Minneapolis that was so full of perks, he says with a laugh, “They even provided the dress shirts—and dry-cleaned them for you.” In 1998, he chucked it all and bought a resort on Lake Bemidji, and then moved to Mille Lacs in 2003.

A father of three, Jacobson has watched his kids catch fish that most adults would struggle to reel in, like the 57-inch muskie that made his son David, then 8, a minor YouTube sensation in 2014.

My last fishing trip, up to Pleasant Lake near Hackensack, was more than a decade ago, so I’m wildly out of practice. For example: After reeling in too quickly, I nearly brain Jacobson with the multi-hooked rubber lure that’s bigger than most fish I’ve caught. Nonplussed, Jacobson ducks slightly to the left, demonstrating that he is also the Bruce Lee of evading flying bait.

Throw some keepsakes in with that fresh bass catch from Mille Lacs.
Throw some keepsakes in with that fresh bass catch from Mille Lacs.

photo by Mille Lacs Area Tourism

We’re total amateurs, but Mille Lacs is for people who are serious about fishing, too. As Jacobson reminds us, the lake is becoming one of the country’s unofficial bass-fishing capitals: In 2017, it topped Bassmaster magazine’s national lake rankings. He points out the geographical features of the lake, and explains how this region is vital not only to fishing culture but to the state’s complex ecosystem. “When you drink tap water in Minneapolis, you’re drinking water from the Rum River watershed,” he explains. The Rum River winds 145 miles south of Mille Lacs to Anoka, where it joins what the Ojibwe call Misi-ziibi, or the Great River.

The Indian Trading Post building is nearly 100 years old. Today, it’s a shop stocked with Native American art and other regional wares.
The Indian Trading Post building is nearly 100 years old. Today, it’s a shop stocked with Native American art and other regional wares.

photo by Mille Lacs Indian Museum

Our next stop is the Mille Lacs Indian Museum with exhibits tracing the Ojibwe tribe’s impact on the shores of the lake long before European settlers arrived. Nearby is the Indian Trading Post, erected in 1920. The soaring original log woodwork speaks to the importance—and the grandeur—of this structure in early 20th-century Minnesota.

We linger over the art, clothing, and hand-crafted jewelry—much of it created by local artisans from the the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, as well as other Native American artists. Captivated by the delicate detail of a hand-woven birch-and-sweetgrass basket, I hardly notice the fat, white flakes pelting the windows.

A salad at the Farm Market Cafe.
The Farm Market Cafe

photo by Mille Lacs Area Tourism

It’s perfect chicken-noodle-soup weather, which happens to be on the menu at the Farm Market Cafe in nearby Onamia. Co-owner Barb Eller, an affable former army major who served as a nurse during Desert Storm, greets us at the door and serves us the fragrant, cure-all soup. For dessert, there’s rhubarb custard pie and homemade vanilla ice cream sweetened with honey.

When Eller tells us that the majority of the cafe’s fruit, veggies, meat, and dairy come from within a five-mile radius, we do a double take. “Did you say five miles?” I repeat.

She nods. “With our soil and climate, we’re not suited to corn and soybeans. So we have to be bio-diverse.” She explains that among the cafe’s suppliers, the tight-knit community of farmers pledges not to use pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics.

Eddy’s Resort is a spot worth stopping at between outdoor adventures.

photo by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Fishing plus soup plus pie equals naptime. Just down the road, we check into Eddy’s Resort, a circa-1960 fishing resort that reopened in 2015 after a multi-million-dollar overhaul. While the phrase “fishing resort” used to correlate with “creaky beds that sag in the middle,” the new Eddy’s is equal parts modern hotel and a vintage-inspired, Instagram-friendly fantasy of a 1960s lakeside resort. With plenty of wink-wink retro touches, including giant games of Connect Four and checkers, the lounge feels as if it were designed by fictional architect Mike Brady (you know, the dad in The Brady Bunch).

While its thread counts may have skyrocketed, Eddy’s remains an actual fishing resort, with a boat launch, chartered fishing trips, and sunset cruises during summer—plus winter fish-house rentals. The diehards can clean walleye at the well-equipped fish station off the lobby, and then kick back at the bar with a Leinie’s. For those of us who fantasize about reading fat novels in front of a glowing fireplace, followed by a blissful snooze on a firm bed fitted with a snowy white duvet—well, they do that quite nicely, too.

As dusk approaches, those lovably soft flakes from a few hours ago have thickened into a nearly opaque whiteout. We ruefully scratch plans to drive to the Lonesome Pine Restaurant and Bar on Bay Lake for some walleye, and settle on walleye sandwiches in the mod gastropub downstairs. Scores of ladies in sparkly tops and denim sip cocktails at the bar, pre-partying before the Granger Smith show at the no-alcohol Grand Casino Mille Lacs.

We sip from our pints and watch dusk complete its final descent over the lake. “Maybe we should come back for ice-fishing season,” I say hopefully.

Jenny raises an eyebrow. “Ice fishing?” She might be remembering my clumsy reel technique from earlier today, which I need to improve lest someone—probably me—loses an eye.

“Well, at least we didn’t fall in,” I say, and then notice that Jacobson has texted me a photo. It’s us, on the boat, red-cheeked and happy. The new tourism campaign for the Mille Lacs area is #DoTheLake, and it seems, despite the cold, the snow, and our failure to catch a muskie, that perhaps we did it.

Eat, Play, Stay in Mille Lacs

Grand Casino Mille Lacs at night.
Grand Casino Mille Lacs

photo by Grand Casino Mille Lacs

The Isle Bakery

Get sweet relief: Scratch-made doughnuts, pastries, and cakes are baked daily at this quaint corner shop in Isle.

Grand Casino Mille Lacs

Loaded with amenities, the casino’s Mille Lacs location has a 494-room hotel, restaurants, a pool with a waterfall, retail shops, a spa, a golf course, and kids’ activities. 

Izatys Golf Resort

Golf and fishing lead the long list of activities at this lakeside destination. The renovated Inn at Izatys features 28 rooms, a fire pit, and outdoor pool.