Brainerd Lakes area flourishes with year round recreation
BY DAVE PEDERSEN
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
When searching for a local angle at last weekend’s Governor’s Fishing Opener media event in the Brainerd Lakes Area, I lured myself into the coverage.
It was said a big reason why families take vacations is the memories last a lifetime. When I heard the media was invited to the tourism event featuring the state’s recreation industry that generates $12.5 billion in leisure and hospitality gross sales annually, I knew my childhood memories would be involved.
The Governor’s Fishing Opener has been a tradition in Minnesota since 1948. My family tradition of going to Sebego Resort on Round Lake started in 1958 when I was 8. Who knew that some 55 years later I would be back to catch one more big fish and memory.
Round Lake is located two hours north of the metro on Highway 371 across from the much bigger Gull Lake, just south of the small town of Nisswa and north of the big town of Brainerd. It is one of the many lakes that make the region a prominent fishing and recreation destination.
Grand View Lodge, located on the north end of Gull Lake, was the primary host for this year’s fishing opener that is totally self-funded with no taxpayer dollars. Local fishing guides are paired with media and sponsors for a day of fishing and showing off the area.
My guide was Chuck Johnson, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lake hydrologist who moved from the metro to near Brainerd seven years ago. His wife is Ann (Hagerty), who taught social studies and coached at Rockford High School for 11 years. So, there is one local angle from the company’s coverage area.
One reason why Johnson was a great fishing guide was because his job involves the study of lakes, rivers and fish habitat and he is not easily fooled. The other is because his two uncles had cabins on nearby Lake Margaret from 1970-96. Chuck started fishing the area when he was a little kid and he had the stories to prove it.
Fishing is phenomenal
Johnson’s GPS map of the 11 lakes connected to Gull Lake has many red marks pointing to a spot where he had some good luck fishing. It was a good sign to see so many hot spots spread out over a wide area, increasing your chance for good luck finding fish.
This year, Johnson was still beaming over the great fishing experienced at last year’s opener when spawning walleye ventured through channels to Lake Margaret and where he netted more than 60 walleyes, some in the 9-pound range.
The challenge of fishing is things are never the same, impacted by water temperature and levels, plus weather fronts often tell the tales. More than anything, nature determines what bait or lure to use and why they bite or not. The one walleye our bout found was one of the few caught Saturday in what was a total turnaround from a year ago.
On days like this, plan B is to go after other species of fish such has northern, crappie or sunfish, which were much easier to find and get to bite. Bass were not in season yet.
Small light color jig heads with either rubber tubes or small legs worked well with the crappies, as did small minnows on the same head. Johnson chases after walleye with colorful and noisy Rapala lures or a heavier round jig and minnow.
However, walleye are more active before the sun is shining bright when they cannot see well. He adds, “By 7 a.m. you can forget about the walleyes.” Fishing sounds quite easy, you just have to know where to look. A couple degrees in water temperature will impact where the fish will go, especially early in the season.
Round Lake revisited
After the morning session and shore lunch at Grand View, Johnson granted my request to boat under the culvert from Gull to revisit Round lake and childhood memories.
Sebego Resort been replaced by some monster homes on top of the hill where we had 135 steps leading to the shallow beach. We could walk out in the lake for what seemed like a block and the water level was only at our waist.
Soon after we got on Round Lake my fishing partner caught two northern and had another on the line when he said, “dang, I lost him.” Then I said, “I found him,” and pulled in the 24.5-inch northern.
The fish missed being the largest northern in the media contest by four inches, but the moment was priceless to me when netting a fish on the lake some 50 years apart. The memories that had started to fade are brighter again.
Area activities abound
Johnson said Gull is a heavily managed fishing area, a main reason why there was so much development of small cabins, big homes, condo and townhome units and resorts. The primary economy is recreation based, including several golf courses, plus hiking, biking and snowmobile trails. The paved Paul Bunyan Trail is used year-round, passing through 15 north central communities.
As in the late 60’s you can still visit the giant talking stature of Paul Bunyan at the amusement park with rides that was moved six miles east of Brainerd on Hwy 18 from its original location on Hwy 371. I was amazed that Paul knew my name every time I came to visit him. And, when you feed seeds to the live chickens in the cage, they will ring the bell.
The Brainerd International Raceway is still going strong with events every weekend, including the NHRA Nationals, a major drag racing event Aug. 14-17. A new family attraction to the area is Safari North Wildlife Park, open from Memorial weekend to mid-October.
This will be the 51st season of turtle races for all ages in downtown Nisswa. Races are run at 2 p.m. Wednesdays, June 4-Aug. 20. Divisions include tiny tots and grandparents. Johnson said he used to rent turtles for the races when he was younger. You paid a dollar and got .50 cents back upon return.
And then you can find all kinds of turtle art and crafts at the many unique small shops and galleries. One store from my early days, The Totem Pole that opened in 1948, is still there. That is still where you find your cowboy and Indian toys and moccasins.
Johnson says the Brainerd area is a great place to raise a family. It can’t be too bad if the current Miss Minnesota (Rebecca Veh) lives in Nisswa and was recently crowned fourth runner-up at the Miss America pageant. That tops the beauty of it all.
Winter as well
Johnson said just as many people come to the area in the winter as the summer, especially for the ice fishing. The hiking and biking trail is taken over by snowmobilers and skiers.
In the past 24 years more than 10,000 anglers have converged on the east side of Gull Lake to compete for $150,000 in prices at the Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza.
What is unique about the Brainerd area is having a wide variety of places to stay, from the small resorts to the more upscale big ones, such as the big three resorts on Gull, Grand View, Madden’s and Cragun’s. All have their own golf courses. Not far up the road is Breezy Point Resort.
Most of the places to stay, play and dine maybe would not be so plentiful without the great fishing. It was said at the opener that tourism is great for Minnesota and it is great for you.