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August 2015 Update: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued an order August 2, 2015 banning walleye fishing for the rest of the season. The 40,000-pound annual quota had been exceeded, reducing the walleye population to a dangerously low level.
Mille Lacs Lake imposes a commanding presence in the Central Region of Minnesota. At 132,000 acres, Lake Mille Lacs is Minnesota's second largest inland lake. Relatively shallow, the large lake is one of many glacial pothole lakes in the area 100 miles west of Duluth. Fed by nearly 20 small tributaries, the only outlet is the Rum River which flows into the Mississippi. Early in explorer history, the Brainerd Lakes area was called "Region of Thousand Lakes" (Pays de Mille Lacs) in French. As the largest lake in the group, the name stuck. Archaeologists say the area around the lake shows evidence of being the site of the oldest human settlement in Minnesota. When the first European explorers arrived in the area, the Native American population was the Dakota and later, the Ojibwa. Father Hennepin visited the lake in the mid 1600s; a small state park named for him nestles along the southern shore. Today, 61,000 acres of land stretching from the south shore toward the east is Reservation land belonging to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwa.
Mille Lacs Lake is famous as the "Walleye Capital of the World." Located 100 miles north of Minneapolis, the lake became the fishing destination of choice well over a hundred years ago. With a maximum depth of 42 feet, the lake is well-supplied with shallower mudflats in its northern half that offer an optimal spawning environment for these game fish. Fishing camps and resorts built up along the shoreline from 1920 to 1950, with many still doing a thriving business with the third and forth generations of vacationers. All water sports can be engaged in at Mille Lacs Lake, including power boating, water skiing, tubing, pontoon boating, jet skiing, canoeing, kayaking and swimming. Sailing has become extremely popular with regattas and sail board competitions held regularly. The large lake lends itself to windsurfing, a newly popular sport for the area.
It's in the area of fishing that Mille Lacs Lake really shines. Because the shallow lake has no temperature stratification, fish readily travel the entire lake while feeding. The lake has many species of fish including walleye, northern pike, muskie, jumbo perch, smallmouth bass and tullibee (cisco). Fish are generally safe to eat with limits recommended for pregnant women and small children. Fishing guides can be hired to assure the optimum catch. The lake still supports an old form of fishing cruise called 'launches' which were popular early in the last century. Much like a charter, the launches are operated by several of the fishing resorts and can carry up to 70 people for an afternoon or a day of fishing. For those wishing to fish independently, public boat launches are available as are several commercial marinas which provide boat rentals. The lakeside villages of Isle, Wahkon, Garrison, Onamia and Vineland will supply the visitor with bait, ice, groceries, lodgings and all necessary camping and fishing accessories.
As with most northern Minnesota lakes, fishing season isn't limited just to summer. In fact, ice fishing often brings a larger amount of visitors than the warmer months. The resorts and vacation rentals are open year round and provide all amenities for the ice fisherman. Unique ice fishing houses are available for rent, often with all amenities, including satellite television, cooking facilities and sleeping space for up to six fishermen. Soon after the first of December, the building of the shanty town begins. As the ice often gets two to four feet thick, over 1000 miles of roads are plowed on the ice. The shanty town, euphemistically called 'Frostbite Flats' may contain as many as 8000 fishing houses. Snowmobile and vehicle traffic comes and goes all day and night, while the temporary inhabitants engage in often silly behavior such as practical jokes and too much drink. Meals are often delivered by snowmobile from establishments along the shore. One favorite local event is to attend the World Famous Fish House Parade at Aitkin, a few miles to the north of the lake. Each year, on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, there is a parade of fishing shanties in town heading for the ice. The entire weekend is filled with festival activities highlighted by the comedic parade of costumed fishermen and their elaborately themed and designed fish houses. Decorated in fish-themed splendor, the spectacle is reminiscent of a high school homecoming parade with an overt bent toward Animal House. Whether they catch those giant walleyes or not, these ice fishermen, and festival-goers, will have a week-end to remember.
Father Hennepin and Mille Lacs Kathio State Parks occupy portions of the southern shore of Mille Lacs Lake. Wealthwood State Forest claims a portion of the northern end of the lake. These parks provide campgrounds, picnic areas, swimming beaches, trails for hiking, mountain biking, cross-county skiing and snowshoeing. South of the lake, the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area is home to 50 mammals and over 200 bird species. The Mille Lacs Lake area is home to white-tailed deer, ruffled grouse, black bear and various duck species. The Dept of Natural Resources provides a down-loadable checklist of area birds to aid bird watching. Hunting is popular here in season. The Mille Lacs Soo Line Trail, Minnesota's newest rails to trails project provides paved and gravel-surface hiking and biking pathways connecting Mille Lacs Kathio and Father Hennepin State Parks. Groomed snowmobile trails are plentiful in the area and maps can be obtained from local businesses.
Those wishing some off-water activity will find plenty to keep them occupied near the shore The Mille Lacs Band operates a casino across the road from the lake with Vegas-class entertainment, sumptuous buffets and all the gaming most visitors would desire. For those desiring to know the history of the area, the Mille Lacs Lake Historical Society Museum is located in the village of Isle near Father Hennepin State Park. A few miles away, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum provides tribal history, native craft lessons and interpretive activities. Next door, a renovated 1930s trading post acts as a gift shop. Under the sponsorship of the Historical Society, a Rendezvous occurs late each summer. These activities are of particular interest to children and a good way to fend off boredom after a few days at the lake.
Anyone who hasn't experienced the unique joys of Mille Lacs Lake will want to make time for a visit at their earliest convenience. Vacation rentals, including cottages, townhouses, bed-and-breakfast establishments, motels and sleep-in ice houses are all available as lodgings. Real estate is available in the immediate vicinity, including some lakefront and lake view properties. Mille Lacs Lake is truly a Minnesota treasure - one you'll want to return to time after time. Come on up! The walleye are waiting!
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