Traveling Angler – Grand Rapids, MN, Summer

Traveling Angler – Grand Rapids, MN, Summer

Aug 10, 2012

Grand Rapids, MN, Summer Fishing & Dining Adventure Preview

Tom Neustrom: My Home Waters

By Mike Pehanich

Why do you live where you live?

For Grand Rapids, Minnesota-area guide Tom Neustrom ( that’s an easy question… but  a long answer.

Family, friends, community, culture and quality of life all factor into his love and commitment to Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

But make no mistake, he loves the waters that helped him carve an angling and guiding career that landed him in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in 2009.

“We have a great destination here because we are a gateway and hub to so many fabulous waters,” says Neustrom. “Our fisheries managers for this area probably are the most aggressive stockers of walleye in the state of Minnesota…We have great smallmouth fishing, excellent musky fishing, outstanding largemouth bass and northern pike lakes, tremendous panfish populations…We even catch lake trout in a few of the lakes.”



Neustrom cites area waters of considerable reputation like Pokegama Lake, Deer Lake, North Star, Moose, Winnibigoshish, Leech Lake and others…but you get the feeling that every lake he names slights another he’ll never get to mention.

“The true beauty of Grand Rapids is that we are really blessed with countless smaller lakes, too,” he says finally. “There’s something for everybody. When it is slow on one lake, it is good on another. When it is so windy on one lake

Northland uses the Northwoods lakes in Minnesota as their laboratory for developing their fishing tackle product line.

you can’t get on, you’ve always got another water that you can!”

A blessing, indeed! You could literally fish a different lake or stream every day in the Grand Rapids area and go years before your fishing log found a repeat entry!

It was Happy Father's Day on the water for the Tom Neustrom, made even more memorable by his daughter's 9-pound-plus walleye!

I picked Tom’s brain shamelessly on area lakes, streams, species variety and, of course, the best places to eat in the area as we drove to Grand Rapids from Duluth International Airport.

More than a thousand lakes – 1,004, by one “official” count, though others counts claim more — dot the area. That’s roughly 10 percent of the estimated waters in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes!” They range from deep, clear, waters like Lake Pokegama, known for walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike, to intimate and easy-to-fish 40-acre “bass/panfish” waters that fly entirely under the outdoor media radar!

Grand indeed!

Just pick your favorite freshwater species, and you will likely find lakes and streams that sport outstanding populations of them.

But better to let the Hall of Famer talk about them.

The Gosh Dam Place off of Lake Winnibigoshish offers outstanding cuisine and lodging...and their fish fry and cook-your-catch meals are among the best anywhere!

Mississippi River: Don’t expect “the Mighty Miss” to be all that mighty here — roughly 75 miles from the headwaters. Think of it as a trout stream that had broader ambitions! The Mississippi feeds some of the best-known waters of the Northwoods, including Cass Lake, Leech Lake, Winnibigoshish, to name a few. “It is only as wide as a highway as it flows through Grand Rapids,” says Neustrom. “But above the dam it widens into a mini-reservoir called Blandin Reservoir, named after the Blandin Paper Mill, and that’s the widest part of the river for probably 100 miles. Everything that swims in Minnesota – except for carp – seems to be in there. Northern pike, musky, walleye, smallmouth.”

Deer Lake: Located 12 miles from Grand Rapids, this deep, clear lake has transitioned from a lake trout water to an outstanding multi-species lake. “It has tremendous fishing,” says Neustrom, advising anglers to seek out cabbage weed and rock piles for prime fishing. “At 5,000 acres, it is a decent size, but a really great walleye, smallmouth and musky lake.”

Look for northern pike on breaklines in early summer and on the deepest breaks in late summer. Caught out of Southwood Resort on Lake Pokegama.

Pokegama Lake: Another in the chain of natural lakes through which the upper Missisippi River flows, Pokegama is clear, 172-feet deep, chockfull of gamefish…and only three miles from town. Pick your species. “Big walleye, big northern, big smallies…” Neustrom begins with the primary piscatorial targets. But the musky stocked a few  seasons ago are growing fast on the lake’s smelt population now, too, and a 7.5-pound largemouth caught there is another reason not to sell the lake short on any species. Ice anglers and trollers score on lake trout, too.

Time out to eat!

Somehow the topic of  “food” interrupted the flow of “fish talk.”

“Food is always a great subject,” said Neustrom as he prepared to launch into his overview of the local culinary arts “What constitutes a great restaurant?”

He took his time, leaving the general question for eternal food philosophers to ponder before letting a litany of his favorite local eateries answer the question for hungry men and women in the here and now.

“Great destination, tremendous place…” he said of Forest Lake, located on the west side of Grand Rapids. “It is what I call a ‘Three Meals a Day’ restaurant – very great for breakfast, lunch or dinner.” The food ranges from fine dining room to bar service – “with exceptional hamburgers, especially the half-pound patty melt,” he added. (Further research found folks raving about the prime rib and beer-battered shrimp! – MP)

“Another great family destination is Florio’s,” Neustrom continued. “It’s a very ‘homey’ place, community-minded…a great family destination. It’s what I would call a 5-star family restaurant – with tremendous chicken. A great family owns it, and it has an interesting story. They moved the restaurant from its original location in Hackensack to Cohasset in the middle of the night – just picked it up and moved it! And they’ve added to the restaurant since.”

The Harbor Grand Smokehouse & Grill's new menu has earned both popular and critical acclaim!

More “research” found that fine dining in Grand Rapids received a recent boost from Dan Clafton’s new smokehouse menu at the Harbor Grand on Pokegama Lake.  And the Walleye Cakes at the 17th Street Grill at Timber Lake Lodge tell you the meal can’t possibly get any better…but it does!

If your culinary preferences – or those of your children – begin and end with pizza, no problem! “We have great pizza places,” noted Neustrom. “We have LMNO P-za on the west side between Grand Rapids and Cohasset…a Papa Murphy’s Pizza, Zorbaz on the Lake and, of course, Domino’s and Pizza Hut…But one of the greatest is also one of the oldest in both Grand Rapids and Hibbing – Sammy’s! No one in Grand Rapids hasn’t eaten pizza at Sammy’s!”

I asked about weekly fish fries in the area. I thought the question had stumped him, but I had merely misread his dramatic pause.

The Gosh Dam Place!” he said, singling out the special breading formulation that has made its fish fry a celebratory event. “But you’ll see tonight,” he said, ending the conversation. (I did – an experience we will chronicle soon!) “They also have a rib special on Saturday!”

For fine dining and comfortable and even luxurious accommodations, check out Timber Lake Lodge and the acclaimed 17th Street Grill. That's Scallops Almondine in the photo.

With mixed feelings and hunger pangs, I moved the discussion back to fishing, but not before Tom’s last food-for-thought summation. “Grand Rapids offers people great diversification, but it also gives them a great bang for their buck… great value for their meal,” he said.

Bass angling in a “Walleye World”

Tom had only scratched the surface of Grand Rapids fishing opportunity. “We have tremendously diverse fishing – and tremendous bass fishing!” he continued. “And not just for smallmouth. The walleye is king here. Few people come up here to fish bass, so we have great largemouth fishing, too.”

Turtle Lake: Roughly 25 miles north of Grand Rapids sits Turtle Lake, a clear, classic Northwoods water. “Excellent, excellent smallmouth!” he raved. “I take a lot of clients up there in summer because we catch a lot of 17- to 20-inch smallies dropshot fishing with small plastics and with crankbaits.

Lake Winnibigoshish: Known as “Winnie” to anglers everywhere, this wide water offers outstanding fishing for walleye, northern pike, and musky. But largemouth bass lurk in large reed banks located around the lake for surprisingly good change of pace fishing. Stop by the Gosh Dam Place to hear the fish talk – and have the restaurant cook your walleye catch!

Largemouth bass are the forgotten fish of the Northwoods -- and that may be why fishing for them is so spectacular.

Sand Lake: One of the top walleye destinations in the area, Sand also has niche populations of big largemouth and smallmouth bass that go unnoticed, and great fishing for other species as well. If you like to tangle with largemouth bass in heavy cover, slip over to little Portage Lake, one of the many, many small natural lakes that make the Grand Rapids area a secret getaway for so many fishermen.

We still had a full head of fish talk ahead as we pulled into the Gosh Dam Place for dinner. But stomach pangs had replaced our hunger for angling conversation.

“And we have so many bodies of water that are diversified… where we can’t just single them out for certain species of fish,” summed Neustrom as the draft of an open door wafted the aroma of freshly prepared fish to my nose. “They are just great fishing lakes!”

You’ll hear that echo repeatedly in this land of clear and fish-filled lakes and streams.

And don’t be surprised if you start adding restaurant footnotes and hard-to-get recipes to your fishing log from the moment you arrive.

I did!

So how was the fishing – and the food?!!! See Mike’s Excellent Grand Rapids, MN, Fishing and Dining Adventure in July 2012!


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