The Governor’s Fishing Opener has been a Minnesota tradition since 1948. Though the COVID-19 pandemic threw it for a loop, cancelling all 2020 festivities, it came back strong in 2021. The 73rd annual event was hosted from May 14 to 16 in Otter Tail County. Just 2.5 hours northwest of the Twin Cities, OTC is home to 1,048 lakes (more than any other county in America!), plus two state parks, quirky roadside attractions, and what some people have deemed the best burger in Minnesota. (Them’s fightin’ words, ’cause it ain’t a Jucy Lucy either.)
Team Minnevangelist was invited to OTC with a mission: to “find our inner otter.” We were even sent a handy quiz to help us figure it out. Our conclusion: We’re an all-of-the-above otter, interested in food, culture, and the great outdoors. Fortunately, OTC has something to scratch every itch.
Prior to the Fishing Opener, we had only been through the county once—and that was for a brief stop in Fergus Falls en route to Fargo. We waved hello to Otto the Otter in Adams Park, where we unwittingly stumbled upon an incredible egret rookery at Grotto Lake, and walked some beautiful trails at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (our Reason to Love Minnesota No. 90).
This time around, we were excited to kick back and chill for a bit. The plan was to hike, bike, paddle, fish, pose next to funny roadside sculptures, scout out some cool hikes, and stuff our faces with good eats. We managed to do all that and more in roughly 36 hours. What follows is our jam-packed weekend itinerary….
Food-driven explorers that we are, we made The Rusty Nail in Battle Lake our first stop in Otter Tail County. The bar & grill won MPR News’ Great Minnesota Burger Bracket last March. One bite and we understood why. Andrew Parks ordered The Nailer, a burger with scratch-made gouda sauce squished between double patties and melty American cheese. Ashlea Halpern opted for The Fireball, a solo patty stacked with bacon, Pepper Jack, Serranos, pickled onions, and housemade jalapeño mayo. The verdict: Pretty spectacular. Shout-out to the warm and welcoming servers, too.
Across the street from The Rusty Nail was The Market, a specialty gift and home goods shop with locations in both Battle Lake and Fergus Falls. Here we found a small bounty of #MNMade products, including Grandma Myrtle’s Sloppy Joe mix and cozy candles from Koselig Candle Co. A couple doors up, Andrew posed with Rusty, a 15-foot-tall art fish. Otter Tail County, it turns out, loves itself a giant sculpture. (More on that later.)
After tooling around downtown Battle Lake, we headed out to Glendalough State Park for a multi-sport adventure. Once upon a time, Glendalough was a private retreat and game farm for Minneapolis Tribune Company owner F.E. Murphy; former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon even visited in the 1950s. Some 40 years later, it was taken over by the Minnesota DNR.
There are five lakes in the park, but Annie Battle is the crown jewel. Many folks come to this 335-acre, non-motorized “heritage fishery” for the crappie, walleye, bass, and sunfish; we’re here to boat and bike.
Galloping Goose Rentals, which has a kiosk next to Annie Battle, loans a variety of bicycles and non-motorized watercraft, including recumbents, tandems, three- and six-passenger surreys, rowboats, canoes, kayaks, SUP boards, and hydro bikes. (Rates are posted here.) Looking for something leisurely, we opted for a large pedal boat. But, lol, joke’s on us because our thighs were screaming about 15 minutes in. Although the wind was pushing against us (isn’t it always?), we managed to putter a good circle around the blue expanse before the storm clouds rolled in.
After we tied up our pedal boat, we hopped on bikes and explored the five-mile paved trail that loops around Annie Battle Lake and through rolling prairie and impossibly green woods. It was a lovely ride—great for families and slowpokes like us. Though we didn’t see any wildlife, luckier park-goers have spotted white-tailed deer, raccoons, and red foxes. It should also be noted that Glendalough State Park has a curious old dog cemetery just south of Blanche Lake as well as cart-in campgrounds and canoe-in campsites. The two isolated yurts, Eagle and Osprey, are particularly scenic.
Next stop: 1910 Sip House on Ethel Lake, just outside Battle Lake, for some refreshing adult beverages. The cider house, opened last October by Colorado transplants Karen and Jeff Lees, specializes in dry cider infusions made with freshly pressed fruit (mango, bing cherries, etc.). The couple even makes cider infused with Karen’s homemade dill pickle brine; it’s a must-try for sour fiends. Prefer a sweeter tipple? Order a Cider Mint Julep, Ciderita, or one of the Lees’ simple syrup-spiked cider concoctions (Cider Crack features toasted marshmallow and coconut; Mud Season indulges in salted caramel and coconut).
Even better than the cider at 1910 Sip House are the environs—a modified grain bin with creative outdoor seating and a tree swing. From the grinning taxidermy to the shotgun-toting mannequin that watches over the bar, y’all don’t wanna sleep on this place.
Team Minnevangelist hung around Battle Lake long enough for dinner, ducking into Stub’s Dining & Saloon, the self-proclaimed “second best restaurant in Minnesota.” Stub Digre opened his supper club in 1969, but it’s got more personality than your typical prime rib palace. Think soaring ceilings and curtained booths, a piano bar and saloon, a beer garden that has hosted both hair metal bands and teen dances, and an snarky menu that teases diners for ordering steak well-done (“Chef’s nightmare!”).
Warm pull-apart bread with garlic butter, made-from-scratch salad dressings, fried halibut cheeks, fork-tender filet mignon wrapped in bacon, and miniature Dove ice cream bars served with the check help kick up this classic supper club experience.
The sun began to set as we drove toward our resort in Dent. The 117-year-old Tingvold Lutheran Church at the corner of Otter Tail Lake Road and Country Highway 35 in Underwood looked so striking against its magnificent golden rays, we had to pull off and shoot it. There are more than 240 churches and cemeteries tucked into the hills of Otter Tail County—they sneak up on you when you’re driving fast, but it’s worth turning the car around to have a look-see. Our final stop of the evening was a wooden pier at West Lost Lake, where we caught the last glimmer of sun before it sank over the horizon.
Though we were thoroughly exhausted by the time we finally checked in to our cabin at East Silent Lake Resort in Dent, we couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable landing pad. True mom-and-pop resorts are rare these days, but this is still a family affair—run by brothers Nick and Andy and their parents Brian and Margaret Leonard, who bought the property back in 2006. The resort was founded in 1915 by pastor Charles Bublitz; look for his old black & white picture in a frame near reception.
We stayed in Cabin No. 2, a two-bedroom, one-bath standalone perched high above spring-fed East Silent Lake. Rates range from $218 to $363 per night or $1,092 to $1,813 per week. Vaulted ceilings, internet TV, and a well-equipped kitchen makes it feel contemporary, but rustic touches abound in the log cabin- and moose-themed decor.
Our cabin had a private picnic table and barbecue grill on its patio, though we also had the option to venture down to the public areas, including a playground, tennis and basketball courts, covered picnic area, fire pit, and a nice lakefront beach for sunbathing, swimming, fishing, or doing yoga on the pier. There was even a vast selection of board games and romance novels in the lodge library, hand-picked by Margaret herself.
And here’s a tip from a couple of dodo bird NYC transplants: Minnesota lake cabins are BYOT — bring your own towel! We did not know this and all we could find in our vehicle was a tiny carwash rag. For two people. For two days. Now we know!
With a big day of fishing ahead of us, we woke up early and rolled out to Nootzi’s on Main in Dent. Kim “Nootzi” Byer is famous for her fresh-baked caramel rolls—which are the size of a salad plate and sugary enough to give George Washington a toothache. And that’s just a starter! Andrew ordered a McNootzi McMuffin (egg, sausage, and cheese on a homemade English muffin) and Ashlea got a combo breakfast (two eggs, two pancakes, two strips of bacon) generous enough to feed a small farm. Nootzi, it should be noted, might be the sweetest woman you ever meet. She knows all of her regulars by name (“Mornin’, Charlie!”) and welcomes strangers like they’re long-lost friends. We adored her.
Back at our resort, our boat hosts for the Fishing Opener were waiting for us. They included 12-year-old Will, a.k.a. Walleye Willie, and his doting grandparents Kathy and Lee. Will is an avid fisherman and an aspiring marine biologist; he’s also a patient instructor. We boarded a pontoon boat and puttered around the pin-drop quiet lake (guess it got its name for a reason).
The goal? Catch and release crappies, bass, suckers, and pike. Wise beyond his years, Willie was a fine little teacher—showing the fishing newbies at Team Minnevangelist the ropes (er, lines?). With eyes like X-rays, he could laser in on a school of fish from 100 feet away. He demonstrated the proper way to jig a rod and shared his philosophies on fishing (it’s a little art, a little luck, and a lotta patience). Four hours in, the sixth grader had caught himself eight fish; the rest of us got bupkis. Or, as Willie taught us to say, “so many we lost count.”
All those elusive fish made us hungry, so we headed to The Fabled Farmer in Fergus Falls for a healthy lunch of power bowls, salads, and fresh-squeezed juice. The eatery specializes in nutritional, sustainable cuisine, sourcing quality local ingredients from Natural Way Mills in Middle River, Jake’s Syrups in Vergas, and Pederson’s Natural Farms and Lindig’s Farm in Fergus Falls. Ashlea’s Tuscan bowl, made with ripe avocado, barley, white beans, broccoli, tomatoes, pesto, pine nuts, and a balsamic reduction, was the perfect palate cleanser after 24 hours of burgers, fries, and filet mignon.
After lunch, we walked around downtown Fergus Falls, admiring the vintage movie palace signage, playing Chopsticks on the colorful upright piano outside the Otter Cove Children’s Museum, and popping into shops. Our favorite boutique was Creative Handmade Goods, which stocks artisan gifts by more than 40 Minnesota makers. Even the shopkeeper, Jan Werkau, is a talented maker. Her line, Soapwerks Naturals, includes heavenly scented soaps, shower oils, lotions, potions, and pillow mists in inspired combinations like Cucumber & Agave and Sea Kelp & Sage.
We also helped ourself to a waffle bowl with two scoops of ice cream (huckleberry and mint chip) at the year-old Uncle Eddie’s ice cream parlor. The menu features more than 40 flavors, including two dairy-free options, surprising picks like licorice, and wild-child scoops of purple Unicorn Power and rainbow Superman for the kiddos. Though the ice cream isn’t made on-site, it features a hit parade of Midwestern favorites including Kemps from Rochester and Land O’Lakes from Arden Hills.
Up next: Outstate Brewing Co. on the Ottertail River Reservoir in Fergus Falls. The grounds here are so scenic, local teens and parents showed up during our visit to take prom photos. The brewery itself is airy, thanks to enormous garage doors that swing open, and has plenty of patio seating. There is also a Ping Pong table tucked into a side wing. We shared a flight of beer served in a mini-canoe and agreed that Grandma’s Garden Rhubarb Sour and the Big Dipper Chocolate Stout are not to be missed.
But enough boozing, more hiking! At Maplewood State Park, we made the speedy climb up to the Hallaway Hill overlook. Though not the tallest mound in the region, it still has a vertical drop of 196 feet—not to mention enchanting views of South Lida Lake and North Lida Lake. And those rolling hills in the backdrop? The Ojibwe called them the Rustling Leaf Mountains. It’s an out-and-back trail, one mile total, with a chance of seeing bald eagles along the way.
With a dinner reservation looming, we embarked on a whirlwind mini-tour of the area’s record-breaking roadside attractions—including the World’s Largest Prairie Chicken in Rothsay, the prairie chicken capital of Minnesota; the World’s Largest Pelican, a.k.a. Pelican Pete, who stands guard over the spillway of the Pelican River in Pelican Rapids; the World’s Largest Loon in Vergas, a 20-footer overlooking Long Lake; and the World’s Largest Turkey in Frazee, a 5,000-pound gobbler named Big Tom.
With all that running around, we still made it to Vergas in time to grab a table in the screened-in porch at Blackboard, an historic schoolhouse turned destination restaurant. Highlighting seasonal ingredients is a top priority for partner Terri Trickle and chef Sara Watson.
Andrew’s walleye stuffed with jumbo lump crab and served with Minnesota wild rice and garlic cream sauce tasted as good as it looked. But it was Ashlea’s smoked Wagyu jumbo hot dog with housemade pickles, crispy chili aioli, fried onions, and salty twisty fries that stole the show.
If we weren’t so dang full, we would have certainly ordered Blackboard’s famous ice cream sandwiches for dessert.
Talk about saving the best for last. One of our favorite finds in Otter Tail County was the Nyberg Sculpture Park located next to the Big Foot Gas & Grocery in Vining. Named for OTC resident Ken Nyberg, an 80-something-year-old retired foreman turned welding artist, the park showcases a dozen of his finest pieces—though you’ll find scores more scattered throughout the county, including a 3,000-pound Grizzly bear at Byron High School, a 17-foot tractor in New York Mills that took him 470 hours to fabricate, and a cheeky dog peeing on a fire hydrant on Front Street in Vining. In fact, one of the first things you see when you enter the town of Vining is Nyberg’s 1,200-pound Big Foot sculpture. “I just thought Vining should have something different,” Nyberg said of the enormous trotter. Mission, accomplished, sir.
Nyberg’s works are cobbled together from scrap metal—sometimes more than a thousand pieces. They’re larger than life and fit seamlessly into a landscape dominated by roadside attractions. Nyberg’s studio is located on 457th Avenue, one mile north of Vining. Visitors are welcome to drop in and see what he’s working on—or just explore the collection near the gas station. Fun fact: The astronaut sculpture close to the roadside is a tribute to Nyberg’s daughter Karen, a NASA astronaut.
The Big Foot, by the by, is a good spot to load up on live bait and #MNMade cabin and road snacks like Heggie’s Pizza, mac & cheese brats from Klinder Processing in Carlos, and chewy Australian-style licorice from Wiley Wallaby in Perham.
For something more filling, we 100 percent recommend the Vining Palace (née Purple Palace), just up the road. You’ll know it by its magical Prince purple exterior. The appetizers may be an odd mix (fried gizzards and funnel fries with chocolate sauce, lol), but never mind that: The thing to get here is the juicy broasted chicken dinner with slaw, broasted potatoes, and a soft roll. Apologies to the prairie chicken in Rothsay, but this bird was banging!
Our penultimate stop in Otter Tail County: a steep-ish hike up Inspiration Peak, the highest point in Central Minnesota. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis inspired the peak’s name when he wrote about the “enchanted peace and seclusion of this place for contemplation.” Know who else finds it inspirational? Stripey gophers and garter snakes, so watch your step!
One last statue for the road: Our Lady of the Hills in Urbank, a 22-footer dedicated on the 75th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima. You can find her off County Road 38 just south of Inspiration Peak.
Thanks for the memories, Otter Tail County. We had a grand time finding our “inner otter” and look forward to coming back in August for the national wiener dog races at Looney Daze in Vergas.
This post was sponsored by Otter Tail County, but opinions are our own.