Fishing & Dining in Grand Rapids, MN

Fishing & Dining in Grand Rapids, MN

Mar 5, 2012

Mike’s Excellent Ice Fishing & Dining Adventure to Grand Rapids, Minnesota

By Mike Pehanich

Up here in northern Minnesota, men are men; women are women…

And winter is a reliable winter.

Barely two weeks of good ice graced ice fishermen around my home in northern Illinois this entire season. So two weeks ago, I headed to the Minnesota Northwoods with the hope of curing a bad case of cabin fever.

Even with one of the mildest hibernal seasons on record there, I knew I could count on snow and ice in reassuring abundance.

Tom Neustrom and Pat Kalmerton show off samples of their morning's crappie catch.

I was headed to a sportsman’s paradise where fishing is no mere escape, but life and culture and 12-month frolic.

Located roughly 85 miles northwest of Duluth, the area attracts anglers with reputations as towering as Paul Bunyan. Angling legends loom here like trophy musky over a fisherman’s bar.

I hopped off a plane in Duluth and into the truck of Tom Neustrom, a “local” who entered the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame three years ago. Our destination was Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and we hadn’t been on the road 20 minutes before Tom’s phone rang. Caller I.D. read: “Al Lindner”

Late winter is prime time, offering some of the best ice fishing of the year.

Tom noted that lakes in the Grand Rapids area had 24 to 30 inches of ice on average. (And, at this writing, they still have that or more.)  But 24 inches is darn near “skim” ice in a region where pick-up trucks, permanent ice shelters, pop-up ice tents, snowmobiles can turn an empty snowscape into a nomadic settlement within minutes.

Ice Capade

My mission was to sample some mid-winter ice fishing action on a few of the 1,200 lakes within a mere 60-mile radius of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids, Minn., is a perfect “Small Waters Fishing” destination, boasting a mix of big name waters like Lake Winnibigoshish, Pokegama, Bowstring, and the Mississippi River with many hundreds of smaller lakes, mine pits, and reservoirs that are pristine and, dare I say it, “underfished.”

Having been nearly “iceless in Illinois” for most of winter, I was in a “catchin’’ mood. I was posed and prepared for anything. Bluegill would be great; perch a delight; crappie sublime. And if a big predator like a northern pike or walleye should open his jaws beneath my hole, a flood of prayer would flow heavenward!

The next morning found me dropping jigs down six- and eight-inch holes on Bowstring Lake with ice fishing wizard Brian “Bro” Brosdahl and good friend and In-Fisherman staff writer Cory Schmidt.

Crappie and perch came quickly, but the action soon tailed off to a mere fish here and there. We commenced to “hole-hop.”

Luckily, that mid-morning lull was a mere dramatic pause for the action that followed.  Cory’s MarCum Showdown sonar unit showed a nervous bar of activity about half-way down the water column. Boom! One crappie, then another, and another.  (See video!)


The crappie fishng was hot and the bait was Northland's Bros Bloodworm


“There’s a tornado swirling down there,” said Bro, meaning we had a tight school of crappie moving slowly around the area. And indeed it was! I don’t know how many crappie we took from that spot, but the unofficial count was in the dozens.

Finally, we pitched Bro’s Frabill shelter over the spot for a little creature comfort. During that brief interlude, several fat yellow perch had snuck into the crappie school.

The crappie are thick and “bog-dyed” a gorgeous yellow-gold on Bowstring. “That hue is common for crappie on a number of lakes in our area,” noted Bro. Also common is a deep platter-like crappie profile that tells you immediately you have found a fish population that loves to eat!


Chilly day chili

But by mid-day, the crappie weren’t the only ones ready to eat.

A body burns a lot of calories in the cold, which, as any ice angler knows, is the very best excuse to put on a heavy feedbag.

We found our caravan of pick-up trucks, snowmobiles, trailers, and sleds gathered on the south end of the lake. Others from our party reported mixed success, but one group had, like us, found a Mother Lode of crappie that had lit up their sonar like a Christmas tree!

They say that it’s always wise to buddy up with the chef.

And wise I was.

I found Steve Arbour in a large dark shelter, looking up from a column of kettle steam like some medieval alchemist. He wasn’t turning lead to gold, but his formula was darn near as important to us.

The Visit Grand Rapids ( folks had lassoed Steve and hitched him to our wagon train as camp cook.  Clearly, this was a man accustomed to cooking for a crowd.

“Let me guess. Were you a firehouse cook?” I asked.

“No,” said Arbour with a grin. “But my dad was! He worked one day on and one day off and always cooked in big batches. When he wasn’t home mom would heat up the spaghetti or chili or chow mein he’d brought home. “

Arbour stirred the kettle again, looked up. “Unfortunately, all his recipes were for five-gallon batches,” he grinned.

Unfortunate for whom? Not us!

His red chili was comfort food in the extreme. The icemen cameth in waves to the Chili-on-Ice-Capade, some savoring each plastic spoonful as if it were $25-a-cup Lobster Bisque, others shoveling it down like ranch hands.

Arbour waxed eloquent on chili and told me to brace myself for the “chicken chili” – a completely different recipe – he had planned for the ‘morrow’s menu.

Our culinary discussion knew no bounds. Best of all, it bought me time for a second helping of chili and lured Arbour into pouring me a homemade “wild blueberry” dessert and sample of maple syrup tapped from trees in his own backyard.

Megan Christianson, executive director of Visit Grand Rapids, joined in, and the food talk grew more serious, starting with regional cuisine.

Settlement in the area came from Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and a mix of Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Serbs and other central and eastern European peoples, many of which came to work the iron mines.

The Farmers Market in Grand Rapids, MN, is open May through October. Look for locally grown and produced products like maple syrup and preserved berries.

“The folks in the mining communities brought their recipes to the region, so you have a lot of foods like Sarmas (minced meat wrapped in cabbage, grape or chard leaves) and pierogi.”

Finns brought their Pasties – oven-baked meat, potatoes and vegetables wrapped in a pastry – another local favorite.

Nature has provided the area with an abundance of maple trees and wild berries, and those, too, have influenced local cuisine. Megan noted that many foods grown and produced locally are available at the downtown Farmers Market from May through October, weather permitting. (Look for more on the Farmers Market in coming months)

“Local restaurants incorporate maple and other locally grown foods into their menus in dressing and all sorts of foods,” said Christianson. “The Sawmill Restaurant creates special butters only available at certain times of the year. They only serve them with their baked Popovers – and they are awesome!”

For more information on fishing and the great vacation opportunities in the Grand Rapids, MN, area, please check out the Visit Grand Rapids website.    he country is beautiful, and Grand Rapids offers outdoor recreation and family fun in all four seasons!





Click here to watch video!

When in Bro country, do as Bro!

We were back to cutting holes in the ice in the afternoon. Bro wanted to put us on some “bull” bluegill, his passion…his specialty.

Now Brian “Bro” Brosdahl is one of the finest ice anglers on the planet, and generally he is extremely generous with his information. But, like every angler, he hoards a few treasures. One is the identity of a tiny lake loaded with big bluegill — our destination that afternoon.

We drove down unnamed paths and gravel roads that had been turned into postcards by a sudden snowfall that coated trees, fence posts and the rare roof top we encountered.

“What’s the name of this lake?” I asked.


“I call it ‘Lake Number Three,’” Bro finally said.


The bluegill bite was short-lived, but we had a chance to see a few of its “average” size fish. When the fishing slowed, I pressured Bro and Cory Schmidt for tips and information. (See coming Tackle & Techniques coverage)

We reviewed our baits, gear and presentations for the day. We used several ice rods from the new Frabill “Bro s Series,” primarily the 27- and 32-inch Quick Tips. As for baits, our primary three were:

1) We had caught our first crappie – aggressive fish —  on a Northland Bloodworm, a short tapered soft plastic worm;


Northlands' Bro Bug

2) Bro’s second bait choice had been a “Medusa” tail of grubs (maggots, if detail be told)  – larvae wriggling in different directions — on a Northland Bro Bug  (And, yes, the Bro’s are related! Brian designed the bait!);

Northland's Bros Mud Bug

3) Last came a similar set of squirmers on a Northland Mud Bug.

Bro noted that we had found the crappie and perch suspended in the water column in the morning, but that he generally finds the “bull bluegill” he is renowned for closer to bottom this time of year.

We’ll have more  ice fishing tips from Brosdahl, Cory Schmidt, Marty & Scott Glorvigen and other top Minnesota anglers next fall in preparation for the 2012-2013 ice fishing season.

Fish Fry

Nothing tops one of Mike’s Excellent Fishing and Dining Adventures off quite like a fish fry.

I had probed Tom Neustrom for the best cook-your-catch restaurant in the Grand Rapids area on my drive in from Duluth.

The Gosh Dam Place on Lake Winnibigoshish will cook your catch. Don't pass up the opportunity for one of the best fish fries of your life!

“The Gosh Dam Place on Lake Winnie,” he said without hesitation.

Now the name itself merits explanation. The Gosh Dam Place is the only motel on famous Lake WInnibigoshish (think WinnigibiGOSHish). Understand that the motel-restaurant-bar is located near Winny’s DAM, and you’ve solved the riddle.

And Gosh Dam! What a fish fry!

Baskets of crappie and perch from our day’s catch tried to make the table circuit, but each emptied so quickly that you were lucky to find a fillet when a basket reached you. Fortunately, the baskets kept coming.

What’s the secret?

“We use our own special batter from Gosh Dam.,” explained Molly Greiner, owner of the Gosh Dam Place Restaurant and Motel. “You bring in your catch. We cook it. That’s all. And, yes, we do a lot of fish fries!”

Northwoods dining at its best at the Gosh Dam Place.

The meal is a steal at $8.95 per head even if you are supplying the fish. It comes with French fries, cole slaw and baked beans.

Gosh Dam Place is a three-meal restaurant that offers great breakfasts and lunches as well, with a burger menu that includes the Gosh Dam and Big Winnie, the latter called “the Musky of all burgers!”

Back to dinner…my meal wasn’t over. My choice for dessert was a no-brainer —  another basket of fried fish fillets.

Pike strike!

Minnesotans don’t hide from snow and cold temperatures; they revel in them! In fact, much of this Northwoods culture is geared to winter and the favorite seasonal pastime, ice fishing.

Ice generally holds into April, and some of the very best ice fishing of the season comes on the far side of winter and early spring. That includes the northern pike fishing. Believe it or not, pike begin staging for the spring spawn even with nearly three feet of ice on the lake.

I joined Marty and Scott Glorvigen, for some northern pike action on Frabill tip-ups the following day. The “Gemini 2” twins and founders of Wired2Fish led me to a decent pike bite, but much of the fun was picking their brains and hearing stories about area waters and their fishing businesses.

The Glorvigen twins are as avid and versatile a pair of anglers as you will find. Scott, in particular, has excelled on the professional walleye trail, but they will comfortably segue into bass or pike or steelhead discussion and sound just as much at home.

We located some prime structure near an inlet on Pokegama to start our pike hunt. Marty scouted the ice and used his GPS to mark key points along the structure for hole placement. The Frabill power auger made quick work of them.

Marty set up several styles of Frabill tip-ups (see next week’s video) with large suckers on a quick-strike rig.

Our team included Dennis Leppell, who was filming a tip-up show for Midwest Outdoors with Pat Kalmerton, owner of Wolf Pack Adventures out of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.


Tip-up fishing can be a game of extreme patience and frustration. But action came quickly for us.

Kalmerton’s flag flipped first, and we all raced to the hole. We watched the spool spin, then finally halt. But by the time Pat grabbed the line to set the hook, the pike had dropped the bait.

Minutes later, one of our flags flew. I was first to the pennant and, lo and behold, had an obliging pike holding firmly to the sucker when I grabbed the braid.

Fish on! The fish made several short runs before I could ease her to the hole. The sight of her snarling jaw set off the adrenaline pump again. And soon we were high-fiving and snapping photos.

Marty and I waited out a long lull between strikes by dropping a live sucker decoy and a live bait rig down a spearing hole inside his nephew’s ice shelter. We had traversed a half-dozen topics when Marty’s rod buckled with the weight of a good fish.

Treat yourself to fine dining in Grand Rapids at the Sawmill Inn's Cedars Dining Room with outstanding steaks, fish, seafood and an assortment of specialties.

Most of the fight took place beneath us, but when Marty finally coaxed the pike to the rectangular hole that appeared to be about 3’ by 6’, it was like watching a 3-D fishing show on big screen TV.

In the meantime, five more northern pike had left deep tooth marks on Kalmerton’s suckers without feeling the sting of a hook. Dennis Leppel was wondering if he would capture sufficient film for his TV segment.


Soon we had packed up all but the last few tip-ups. The situation was starting to look particularly grim for Dennis.

That’s when Kalmerton’s flag sprang to attention!  Pat

"Prime Rib and Jumbo Shrimp" is a Sawmill delight!

had had enough of the “standard operating procedure” of waiting until the fish stopped running with the bait to strike. This time he hauled back with his hand line immediately as if he were setting the hook on a 10-pound bass buried in the slop. He stopped the pike in mid-run, and this time, the hook hit home.

Clearly this was the biggest fish of the day.  The tug of war went on for several minutes before Pat could pull its head up the hole. But there, finally, it was. His 8.5-pound northern pike capped the afternoon nicely.


Epilogue: Sawmill feast, Florio’s lunch…see you this spring!

We cleaned up for a last dinner at the Sawmill Inn of Grand Rapids.

The freshly baked hot popovers indeed had the melt-in-your-mouth goodness Megan had promised. Honey butter was the spread of the day and a perfect match to the light rolls. “Sawmill is the only restaurant in town that offers the popovers,” she added. My entrée was a Prime Rib and Jumbo Split Shrimp – an eight-ounce cut of prime rib and spread of broiled jumbo shrimp split and spread for art and ease of handling.

The hometown folks extolled the rest of the Sawmill menu over dinner, and I vowed to try The Top sirloin and Walleye a la Ritz on my next buzz through town – which can’t be soon enough!

Florio's Grill & Tavern in Cohasset is a favorite with families and fishermen with its famous fried chicken and burgers and assortment of steaks, fish and seafood items

The next morning, I began plotting my late spring/summer return to Grand Rapids, Minnesota. I met with Megan Christianson at Florio’s Restaurant, a rustic three-meal eatery, to put the wheels in motion for that trip.

Ron and Nancy Florio greeted us and told the story of their restaurant and how they had uprooted the building and moved it from Longville to Grand Rapids – a distance of 50 miles covered in an excruciating 3-1/2 hours.

It was still late morning, but the restaurant was already filling rapidly. We ordered Florio’s Fried Chicken, a popular item on a very popular menu. But, in my mind, I was already picturing myself returning on a late summer afternoon with thoughts of a day’s catch of bass, walleye and northern pike, and agonizing over whether to order one of the Florio’s steaks, prime rib, or BBQ ribs or to go with the walleye or Alaskan Pollock fish fry. Decisions, decisions….                                              — MP

For more on late season ice fishing in Minnesota, see Last Chance Ice 2012.

One comment

  1. we always ask that eeyvrone release fish so we can catch them again, PERRYTWINSOUTDOORS, we never promote keeping fish, but the people we take fishing can keep a limit, we soremouth enough fish to keep a healthy school, if you go fishing with us, u will get your limit, please throw them back so our kids can catch them in the future, thank u

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