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Lake Winnibigoshish is a legend among Minnesota lakes. The lake's impressive size, covering more than 58,500 acres, reaches into both the Northwest and Northeast tourism regions of Minnesota. Lake Winnie, as it is often called, is a famed vacation destination all over the Midwest.
The existence of Lake Winnibigoshish has been known since at least the late 1600s. Also called Lake Winnepeg, Winnipec and Winnepeek in old texts, the name derives from the same roots as famed Lake Winnebago. In Ojibway, the name translates quite ignobly as "miserable, wretched dirty water". This seems to be a common name that was given by local Native Americans to shallow, muddy-bottomed lakes. Early explorers mention that storms could rile the shallow waters into a muddy froth very quickly. A Native American village survived on the south shore of the lake for centuries, casting their nets across the shallow Mississippi River outlet for their main food source. The coming of white explorers changed all that.
The Mississippi River flows through Lake Winnibigoshish from its headwaters 170 miles upstream. It was here at the Lake Winnibigoshish outlet that the US Army Corps of Engineers chose to build the first of many dams on the Mississippi River. Labor for the project had to be brought from nearly 200 miles away at Minneapolis, and the dam took several years to complete. Men from the local village were also hired as laborers, but it is unclear if they fully understood what would happen when the dam was finished. When completed in 1884, the lake level was raised 14 feet, inundating the village, drowning their gardens, washing away the graves of their ancestors and destroying their shallow fisheries. Within a short time, the most easily accessed timber was logged and floated downstream with the assistance of the higher river level. Most of the Chippewa moved away to other nearby lakes.
The original timber dam was replaced by concrete in 1890. Within a few short years, travelers were arriving at Lake Winnibigoshish to camp and fish near the dam. So many arrived that the Corps was forced to provide camping facilities for the visitors that just seemed to keep coming. The popularity of the lake grew as the idea of vacations and fishing trips caught on with the growing American middle-class. Several resorts were developed to provide lodgings for the visitors. Many of those same resorts still exist around the perimeter, but a large portion of the shoreline remains undeveloped. Held as reservation property for several local tribes by 1863 treaty, a large amount of the reservation land has been absorbed by the Chippewa National Forest. This land will remain undeveloped except for hiking trails and rustic campgrounds. The Leech Lake Bands who were granted the land take an active part in monitoring water quality, assigning fishing regulations and handling conservation duties. The tribal reservation encompasses several other large lakes and many small lakes and rivers where they harvest more wild rice for sale than any other reservation.
Always a productive fishery, Lake Winnibigoshish has been actively managed for optimal fishing success by regular planting of fingerlings. Yellow perch, white sucker, walleye, tullibee (cisco), rock bass, northern pike, black crappie and pan fish are regularly caught. A Minnesota state record muskie was caught here in the 1950s. As a precaution, Minnesota lists safe fish consumption guidelines: all can be eaten within reason. Several public access boat launch sites are maintained, and the small towns of Bena and Ryan Village supply bait, tackle, snacks, boat and canoe rentals. Fishing guides can be engaged, but Lake Winnibigoshish is easy for a first time visitor to navigate with an outboard-equipped boat. Canoes and kayaks can be rented to paddle the unspoiled shoreline and are excellent for bird watching and wildlife spotting. The 70,000 acre Chippewa Forest adjacent to Lake Winnibigoshish and connected Cut Foot Sioux Lake also supply many miles of streams for exploring. The Chippewa National Forest boasts 100+ miles of forest trails allowing abundant opportunity for berry picking, wildlife viewing, mountain biking, fall color observing, hunting and cross country skiing.
A bit farther afield, the villages of Deer River, Cass Lake, Bemidji and Grand Rapids work diligently to cater to the visitors to all area lakes. These unique, tourist- friendly communities within an hour's drive of the Lake Winnie area offer a variety of activities and attractions, showcasing musical productions, historical sites, museums, movie theaters, restaurants, art galleries, gift shops, antique dealers, mini golf courses, bowling alleys, riding stables and more. These towns also host seasonal festivals and craft fairs, and sporting events from biathlons and triathlons to canoe races and ski jumping. Multiple championship golf courses and casinos are just a short drive from Lake Winnibigoshish.
Water sports are a favorite pastime at Lake Winnibigoshish, with power boating, sailing, water skiing, tubing and pontooning occupying the many visitors during the summer. However, visitors certainly don't slow down in winter. Itasca County publishes maps of marked and groomed snowmobile trails available for download. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular, with downhill skiing available nearby. Hunting season brings its own set of visitors who hunt whitetail deer and upland birds. Especially prized is the ruffed grouse.
But it is ice fishing season when Lake Winnie really shines! Ice fishing here is not just a sport but a rite of passage. And, northern Minnesota does it with a flourish! Most vacation rentals are available year-round, and many rent not only lodgings but ice shanties in varied stages of elegance. Visitors are perfectly welcome to bring their own small skidded-in ice shanty and can even store it here year-round for a small fee. However, most resorts also rent ice shanties and will set them up on the ice, and even fire up the heater before the fisherman arrives, including spudding the hole! Many of these 'shacks' are carpeted, sleep four or more and have satellite TV, cooking facilities, portable toilets and a stocked bar. Something of a competition ensues in the building of such facilities, with the amenities becoming more outrageous and the merriment more contagious as the years go by. And nearly every northern town with a lake nearby will have an annual ice fishing festival where parades, costume contest and fishing derbies hold sway. Such festivities are worth the trip to attend even if one never wishes to fish.
All types of vacation rentals area available on and near Lake Winnibigoshish. Along with the many small family resorts, there are private cottage rentals, campgrounds (including the original Corps campground near the dam) and hotel facilities in the area towns. Real estate is often available in the area, some on the lakefront. Lake Winnie is 120 miles from Duluth and 225 miles from the Minneapolis-St Paul metro area. The distance is reasonable for a week-end visit or a longer stay. As you can see, there is something for visitors in every season. So, bring your boat - or your ice shanty - and come to Lake Winnibigoshish. You'll wonder why you didn't come here years ago!
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