Mother’s Day on Mille Lacs
by Jim Kimmet

Quiet evening on Mille Lacs

As we drove north on Hwy 169 on beautiful, sunny, breezy Mother’s Day 2000, dozens of fishing boats were headed south. Apparently the brutal weather on Saturday’s fishing opener followed by strong winds on Sunday morning had convinced many fishermen to spend Mother’s Day with their wives and mothers. We arrived at the Cove Bay launching ramp about 11:00 to find the lake covered with whitecaps whipped up by a steady 20 knot breeze. The parking lot, which normally would have been packed on fishing opener weekend, was almost empty. There were five fishing boats lined up just off the dock waiting to pull out of the lake and more were headed in. We decided to head over to Izaty’s to launch.

The ramp at Izaty’s was very sheltered and we took our time getting the boat rigged. We put two reefs in the main and a reef in the jib, and put on layers of clothes topped with foul weather gear. After stopping at the office, called Walleye World, to pay the $7 launch fee, we motored out the narrow channel into the teeth of the wind blowing out of the northwest. Hoisting the sails we headed north on a close reach towards Malmo. The waves were 3 to 4 feet, it was sunny, we had occasional spray into the cockpit, it was a perfect day for sailing. We shook a reef out of the main and sailed on a close reach for several hours, then gybed and headed back. We had lunch, Karen napped, and we just enjoyed sailing. At first we saw just a few fishing boats, but as the wind moderated more boats arrived, fishing on the reefs. As we approached Izaty’s another sailboat came out and we waved as we went by. We dropped the sails, motored in, retrieved the boat, stopped at Happy’s in Onamia for burgers and shakes, and were home by 9 PM.

I discovered Lake Mille Lacs two years ago when I tired of the buzz of personal watercraft and the roar of overpowered powerboats on metro area lakes and Lake Pepin. I yearned for the quiet and space of the Apostle Islands but without the five hour drive. One day I looked at the map, saw Lake Mille Lacs only 90 miles due north of my home in Plymouth, MN and wondered “Why not sail there?”. I asked around but couldn’t find anyone familiar with sailing Lake Mille Lacs, so I bought a Fishing Hot Spots map of Lake Mille Lacs, picked the closest launch ramp, hitched up Blue Skies, and set forth. Since then I have sailed Lake Mille Lacs at least a dozen times, sometimes for weekends and sometimes just for a day. Imagine sailing for 20 miles on one tack, under a blue sky and puffy white clouds, just you and your boat bounding over the waves, listening to that incredible sound that a sailboat makes slicing through the waves. Imagine driving only 1˝ hours to enjoy this!! That’s Lake Mille Lacs. 

Lake Mille Lacs is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota (the Red Lake system is the largest). It is roughly rectangular in shape, 20.5 miles long at its longest point and about 13.5 miles wide. Its maximum depth is 43 feet and averages 21 feet. The lake has a reputation for getting rough very quickly, but I suspect that its reputation is exaggerated because most of the boats on Lake Mille Lacs are open fishing boats. When rolling in the waves in a boat that is basically a big bathtub with a motor, just waiting to scoop in a wave, any wave over three feet probably looks pretty fearsome. I think the report in one newspaper account of 12 to 16 foot waves is a bit exaggerated. I have sailed the lake a number of times in 20 to 30 knot winds, and the waves were perhaps 3 to 4 feet. For anyone used to sailing on Lake Pepin, which is about the same length as Lake Mille Lacs, the wave action will be familiar. The main difference is that in the middle of Lake Mille Lacs you will be six miles from the nearest shore vs. never being more than a mile from shore on Lake Pepin. If you crave space to breathe while you sail, this is the most you’ll get without driving another three hours.

Weather can change quickly on the lake so I would be cautious about taking daysailors far out onto the lake. So far my Montgomery 17, with a 500 pound shoal keel/centerboard combination, double reefed main, and reefed jib has comfortably handled any weather that has come up. I highly recommend a rig with double shrouds—we had an upper shroud come loose in 25 knots of wind when a cotter ring and clevis pin fell out. The lower shroud saved us from an unpleasant experience. When the black clouds roll in quickly and you see the fishing boats head for shore, you want to be able to reef way down and heave to if necessary. To keep track of the weather a VHF radio with a masthead antenna usually picks up weather broadcasts fairly well. A handheld doesn’t have adequate reception.

Karen Henchert Swimming on Mille Lacs

The lake has a number of shoal areas and reefs that are all well marked with buoys, but they are easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention, so always keep a close watch. There are some dings in my rudder that attest to that. The shore is rather featureless and entrances to marinas are hard to spot, especially in hazy weather, so some navigation skills are needed to get back to your starting point. A chart, compass and binoculars are very useful. If you take a wrong turn on a hazy day, as I did once, a handheld GPS is handy to get a fix.

So what is there to see or do on Lake Mille Lacs, besides glorious, fabulous sailing for 20 miles on a single tack? Well, one can sail up to Malmo on the Northeast side of the lake, pull into Castaways and have a beer in the bar. Then sail north from Malmo and spend some time swimming and wading on the Malmo Sand Break, a long, shallow, sandy stretch of shore. Or tie up to the dock in Garrison on the northwest side of the lake and have lunch at one of the restaurants that are within a few blocks. Or you might explore the southern part of the lake, visiting some shops in Wahkon, such as the Country Caboose, a gift shop in a train caboose. On the south side of the Lake is Izaty’s Resort and Marina, with a restaurant, bar and golf course, and on the western shore about 6 miles south of Garrison is Eddy’s Lake Mille Lacs Resort. If you’re a bird watcher, cruise by Hennepin and Spirit Islands. These two tiny rocky islands comprise the Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, one of only four sites in Minnesota where the common tern nests. And, when the day is done, gamble the night away in the Grand Casino Mille Lacs.

The main drawback to this lake is the shortage of protected anchorages. Most of the northern end of the lake is wide open and only suitable for anchoring in very settled weather. Terry’s Marina just south of Garrison and Castaways, a small marina in Malmo, are options for overnight stays. On the southern third of the lake both the east and west shores have points which provide protection from various directions. The best protection is available in the SE corner of the lake near the towns of Isle and Wahkon, and in Cove Bay to the SW, particularly adjacent to the launching ramp in Cove Bay. The bottom can be rock, sand, weeds, or mud. The more sheltered areas tend to be shallow and weedy so getting an anchor set really well is sometimes difficult. On one occasion in a rocky area I simply anchored in three feet of water and piled rocks on the anchor.

If you own a trailerable sailboat, especially a pocket cruiser, Lake Mille Lacs provides wonderful sailing without much driving. It’s all here—good winds, waves, spectacular sunsets, opportunities to practice navigation and heavy weather sailing, sand beaches, restaurants, shopping, and, of course, fishing. Bring your gear and fish the best-known walleye lake in Minnesota.

Facilities

A good, free ramp is the DNR ramp just east of Cove in the southwest corner of the lake on Cove Bay. There is a large grass parking lot which gets pretty full but I have always been able to find a parking spot. There is lots of fishing boat traffic at this ramp, and it is a single lane, so unless you are very efficient at launching and retrieving be prepared to incur the wrath of impatient fishermen. It’s best to avoid rush hour early in the morning and just before sundown. The ramp is solid concrete with docks on both sides but the approach is only about 2 to 3 feet deep.

If you need more depth to launch or don’t want to be rushed by the fishermen, a few miles east of Cove is Izaty’s (800-533-1728). This is the nicest marina on the lake and typically has about 25 sailboats for the season. The launch ramp is good, suitable for any trailerable boat, for a $7 fee. An overnight slip is $15 and showers and bathrooms are available, but unfortunately Izaty’s doesn’t allow you to sleep in your boat in the marina. You will have to anchor out or book lodging in the resort. The shallowest point in the marina entrance is 5 ˝ feet. 

Terry’s Boat Harbor Marina (320-692-4430), about 6 miles north of the casino on the north side of Seguchie Point, offers launching for $8 and overnight slips for $15, and you can sleep on your boat. There are no showers and when the office is closed you’ll have to make do with the chemical toilet. Minimum depth is 6 feet. 

However, the ramp is just sand and gravel and the marina is right next to busy Hwy 169—too noisy for me.

Eastside Marina (320-676-8735), four miles south of Malmo, has a concrete ramp, launching for $7, and you can stay on your boat for $18 or leave your boat in a slip for $10/night and camp in the campground. There are bathrooms and showers. The depth in the entrance is about 2 ˝ feet this year.

Castaways (320-684-2380), a small marina in Malmo, has bathrooms and showers and a bar and restaurant. Minimum depth in the entrance is 3 feet.

Seagulls welcome our arrival at Garrison

More information on lodging and restaurants is available at HYPERLINK http://www.lakemillelacs, HYPERLINK http: //www.millelacs.com, and from the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council at 888-350-2692.

Note: As of mid-May the lake is about a foot below normal.

Jim is a sailor, writer, engineer, and sailing instructor based in Plymouth, MN. Look for his forthcoming book, “Trailer Sailor’s Guide to the Universe”, in about a decade.