The old fish has called this place home for two years, Al Lindner figures. And while the nice-sized bass is right at home in a tank loaded with logs, weeds and natural structure, the fish generally shies away from people and bright lights, Lindner said.
But Lindner, always the kid in the candy store when it comes to fish and all things fishing, couldn’t resist. He dipped his index finger into the tank, seeing if he could get the old bass to bite, as it will on occasion, he said. With a light used for filming shining on the tank here in the heart of the Lindner Media Productions complex in Baxter, Lindner wasn’t expecting much.
Still, if anyone can get a fish to bite ...
“He got my finger!” Lindner said, laughing heartily as he pulled his hand from the tank. A first-time visitor here might think this was something new, but it’s not uncommon to see Lindner sticking his hand in the tank where Lindner Media Productions gets some of its fish footage.
Yes, maybe it has something to do with the inner child in all fishermen. For many anglers, this fishing thing seems to keep them young — Lindner is 66, but you would never know it. But for Al, brother Ron and the rest of the Lindner clan at Lindner Media Productions, this is what they do. Fishing is their life and their livelihood.
Al and Ron Lindner have dedicated most of their life to learning the inner workings of their finned friends, traveling the world in an attempt to gain such insight and, in turn, sharing that knowledge with their viewers. And for 40-plus years, they have called the Brainerd-Baxter area home. They’ve done much of their work right here in the lakes area.
And why not? The Brainerd lakes area had everything they were looking for back in the late 1960s, when they were searching for a place to set up shop and call home.
“Our No. 1 thought was to open a small resort with a bait shop and a guide service. That was our initial dream,” Al Lindner said.
“We looked at Maine, Wisconsin and Michigan, too,” said Ron Lindner, 76. “It had to have some real qualities — multi-species and quantity of fish. From muskies to bluegills.
“It is the only reason we picked it.”
By “it,” he meant fishing mecca.
Much has changed since then. Thanks in part to the Lindners and their educational programming, anglers are more knowledgeable than ever. Extensive technological advances also make finding fish easier than ever.
“These lakes were fished hard by intelligent fishermen,” said Jim Lindner, 52, Ron’s son and the executive director at Lindner Media Productions. “Those lakes were hurt by angling knowledge.”
Unlike the Lindners, Gary Roach and George “Coop” Cooper grew up in this area, and like the Lindners, became fishing legends in the lakes area and beyond.
Roach, 74, better known as Mr. Walleye, still lives just down the road from where he grew up in rural Merrifield. He still fishes around the world and still runs the Gary Roach Pro-Team tournament in Ontario each August. But mostly he fishes the little lakes around Merrifield or ventures just down the road to Lake Mille Lacs.
Yes, having a world-class walleye fishery in his backyard has been a plus. But there’s much more in that backyard than Mille Lacs.
“It’s like tournament fishing. ... if you’re over a school of fish and move to another spot to find fish. Why would you leave that?” Roach said during a recent outing on Mille Lacs. “You’ve got everything here. Big lakes, small lakes ... Why would you leave?”
Cooper, 64, known for his prowess with big northern pike, still fishes many of the waters he fished growing up. A recent three-day excursion in search of big pike led him to Gull Lake, the Pennington mine pit lake, the Mississippi River and Rice Lake. The fishing was slow, yielding only a few fish, and none of much size. But that didn’t diminish the experience. Never does with “Coop.”
“When I travel the country and come back, it’s all right here,” Cooper said. “You might have one trip where it’s better. But I couldn’t wait to come home to fish. The fishing is so good. If you come to Brainerd or anywhere in central Minnesota, in 15 minutes, you can be on another body of water. The choices are so great here.
“We could get into some panfish if we drove around the corner,” he added, pointing to a spot on Rice Lake. “The area is such a fishery.”
With his wife, Maureen, looking on from the parking lot near the access at Lum Park, Cooper made cast after cast with a homemade spinner bait. Puttering along in his boat not far from shore, he found some success, hooking a few nice bass and a small muskie and northern, stopping from time to time to tie on a different homemade lure.
“Everyone calls them ‘Coop Baits,’” Cooper said of his homemade lures. “I’ve been making my own spinner baits for a number of years. I like to fish my own baits.”
He’s not alone. In fact, Cooper and others in the fishing industry have said that local fishing innovations played a major role in the area becoming a true world-class fishing destination.
“All the tackle innovations that came out of the area ... There is a lot right here, basement shops,” Cooper said. “A lot of great stuff came out of the Brainerd area. A lot of innovations came out of here. Lindy-Little Joe was so good. They didn’t just produce tackle, they wanted to know what we did with it and how it worked. Lindy was drawing card No. 1 to get people here. We promoted out of our boats.”
The Lindners, along with local fishing legend Nick Adams, formed the Lindy-Little Joe Tackle Company on the west side of Brainerd in the late 1960s. It remained a mainstay in the Brainerd area until 2009.
“The Ma and Pa tackle stores were much more prevalent back then. A lot of very locally made equipment,” said Roland Kehr, a Brainerd dentist and co-owner of Lindy-Little Joe for nearly 30 years before the company was sold in 2008. “That was a significant part of the business — smaller tackle shops. It’s moved from Ma and Pa shops to Big Box entities.
“At that time — the 1970s to at least 1990 — it definitely was,” Kehr said of Brainerd as a fishing product mecca. “Lindy-Little Joe was the No. 1 walleye tackle company in the world.”
And, according to Kehr, other entities also were coming together to make the lakes area a major all-around fishing player.
“The Lindners had In-Fisherman, (fishing and outdoors television personality) Babe Winkelman came in, there were great guide opportunities, we had the premier walleye fishery in Mille Lacs,” Kehr said. “I still think it’s a fishing mecca in terms of guided trips. There are large lakes (with all species of fish). That attracts a lot of people. And there’s also the Mississippi River. That’s vastly underrated. It’s an untapped resource. And fishing for trout is a minor thing here, but we still have one of the nicer trout streams in Stony Brook. This is definitely still a mecca in terms of people wanting to get out and fish. There’s still a call for fishing trips. It’s a mecca in that there are so many bodies of water.”
That — and In-Fisherman — is what brought Jim Kalkofen to the lakes area in the mid-1990s. He was running the Professional Walleye Tour — under the Lindners’ In-Fisherman umbrella — out of Wisconsin.
“As the PWT grew in events sponsorships and participants, it made sense to consolidate under one roof,” said Kalkofen, now a part-time development director for Minnesota Teen Challenge where he helps run the annual Fishing Challenge, and a pontoon captain for the Brainerd chapter of Let’s Go Fishing. “As things grew it made sense to be here. I came because of the tournaments.”
And stayed, in great part, because of the fishing.
“In 18 years with the PWT, I made a list of the lakes and rivers I wanted to fish, and there would be two or three I fished,” Kalkofen said. “I’m fishing about 15 new lakes a year now. I have a list of about 40 lakes I want to get to, and probably five or six more yet this year.
“I asked (a friend) if he wanted to get together in Minnesota or Wisconsin (to fish). He said, ‘Let’s get together in Brainerd. There’s a lot better fishing there.’ And another friend is coming from Alaska. He’s fished all over the world. I asked him, ‘Where do you want to go this year?’ He said, ‘Brainerd.’ He said there’s such a variety of fishing and it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone on any of the lakes.”
That variety — both in bodies of water and fish species — is the key, Al Lindner said.
“We’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of places and, without question, within an hour’s driving time, you have probably the best freshwater, multi-species fishing in the world here,” he said. “It’s a truly amazing place to live.”
And still a fishing mecca.
“It’s better than it was 20 years ago,” Jim Lindner said.
“Forty years ago,” Ron Lindner immediately added.
“When we moved here,” Al Lindner followed.
Added Jim Lindner: “Angling today is pretty incredible.”
But as the Lindners and other longtime anglers here will concede, the landscape has changed in the Brainerd lakes area. Gone are most of the rustic Ma and Pa resorts that once dotted many of the hundreds of lakes in the Brainerd area. In their place are resorts — many of them upscale — that draw golfers, bicyclists, drag racing enthusiasts, tourists and more to an area that is becoming increasingly diverse.
“That’s unfortunate,” Jim Lindner said of the vanishing Ma and Pa resorts. “That’s part of the character (of the lakes area).”
Still, fishing trips remain a big draw here, and those in the know say there are more guides in the Brainerd lakes area than ever before. But the “Up North” fishing experience is indeed that. Those searching for a wilderness fishing adventure are passing through Brainerd on their way to points north such as Grand Rapids or Lake of the Woods or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“I search out wilderness experiences,” said Marc Bacigalupi, in his first year as DNR area fisheries supervisor in Brainerd and an avid fisherman. “It’s a different clientele that comes here. There’s all the amenities. Maybe they’re not coming for the wilderness. There are things for the whole family to do here that surround the fishing — shopping, the races.
“The fish populations are up there with anywhere. There are real world-class establishments and resorts. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea or within everyone’s reach sometimes, but that’s why people liked it in the early days and it was such a big mecca and certainly a place to come for certain types of people.”
While some of the more popular Brainerd area lakes, including Gull Lake, have become infested with invasive species in recent years, Bacigalupi the biologist doesn’t see that hurting the area’s reputation as a fishing destination.
“I wouldn’t say so yet,” he said. “It’s still in the early innings. We’re in a wait-and-see mode. Anglers seem to be pretty versatile and adapting to change pretty well. I wouldn’t say this is an invasive species hot spot. And the water quality is such a crucial variable in the enjoyment of lakes. And we’ve got such nice water quality here. It brings the people to the degree that overcrowding might be a turnoff for fisherman. That’s maybe a negative. But you can’t say it’s a negative when the basis (of the argument) is clean water and scenery.”
Dan “Walleyedan” Eigen, one of the more prominent guides in the area today, agrees that the entire package is the big draw here.
“The whole beauty of the area. The whole picture. The pine trees, the smell. That’s a big part of it,” said Eigen, who grew up in Eden Prairie, vacationed in the Brainerd lakes area as a child and moved here full time to guide in the late 1980s. “I was coming for the whole experience. The lakes are a big deal.
“This area has a lot to offer. I like to golf, hunt and fish. It has everything. When I was coming up from Eden Prairie (as a kid), at old Highway 371 there (near Brainerd), at that point you were up north, with the smell of the pine trees.
“It is a destination. You can do well here. It’s still pretty phenomenal what you can do on an everyday basis catching fish.”
But, like Bacigalupi, Eigen said the trend for hard-core fishermen might be toward the north.
“People might consider going farther north,” he said. “(This area) is becoming more commercialized. People used to come to the area for what it was — the trees, lakes. As much as I love it here, I still like the rugged outdoors. But to conduct business, you can’t beat it here.
“People come now because you’ve got golf courses and places like Walmart and now the new Wendy’s (in Nisswa). People are used to that in the Cities — the conveniences of home.”
Longtime area guide Hank Ebert, a member of the famed Nisswa Guides League, also sees the lure of going north.
“I would say it would be between Brainerd and Grand Rapids,” Ebert said of the top fishing destinations in the state. “There’s less traffic in the Grand Rapids area. It’s a little quieter. This place is definitely growing. This is more of a family area.
“Grand Rapids is about as good as you can get but Brainerd is still right there. There are so many fish. And all the amenities. People fly in on an airplane and wonder where the roads are. All they see is water. Everything is here.”