Theoretically, any bar is a fishing bar if it’s close to where you just spent the day fishing. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve drowned my share of sorrows over a skunking at Applebee’s and celebrated tarpon victories at Buffalo Wild Wings. The beer is the same no matter where you get it, but not the atmosphere. Certain watering holes just have the “it” factor of a real fishing bar, and believe it or not, dusty skin mounts on the wall and nautical décor aren’t automatic qualifiers.
Whiskyriff.com recently covered the Igloo Bar, which may be the coolest—literally and figuratively—fishing bar ever. Of course, if you want to pop in for a brew, get there soon because it’s not a permanent establishment. Located in Zippel Bay on Minnesota’s famed Lake of the Woods, the Igloo Bar has been set up on the ice for five winters in a row now, offering anglers and non-anglers alike a place to get warm and enjoy a cocktail. Fully powered, the Igloo Bar has TV for football fans, and holes around the interior so you can jig up a few walleyes while knocking back your suds.
It sounds like paradise to me, too, but the Igloo Bar is a rare place. What do you do when you’re on a fishing trip with your pals in an unfamiliar area and looking for that perfect post-slayfest cantina? Here are a few pointers I’ve picked up from visiting great fishing bars all over the country.
Drink Like a Guide
Did you hire a fishing guide on your trip? If so, they hold the keys to the most legit fishing bar in the area. That is, of course, if you’re worthy of those keys. Any guide on the planet can recommend a bar, but the one you want is where they drink. There is no better gauge for whether a guide actually enjoyed spending time with you than their bar recommendation. If the answer is something like, “well, there’s not much around here except the Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings,” there’s a strong chance you were a pain in the ass. Regardless of the answer, make sure you ask specifically where he or she grabs a cold one after work. If they tell you—or better yet, join you—pat yourself on the back.
Good fishing bars often celebrate angling milestones. As an example, I once heard about a Wisconsin bar that gave you a free shot of Jägermeister and sauerkraut juice if you came in on the day you caught your first muskie. Frankly, the shot sounds so terrible that it might make me pull a bait away from a muskie, but it’s the tradition that matters. I once drank in a Florida bar that offered free wings to anyone who caught a largemouth bigger than 12 pounds that day. Likewise, I once sipped cocktails at a Turks & Caicos tiki bar that ponied up a free rum runner if you caught a bonefish over 10 pounds. Bars that offer these incentives are not easy to find, of course, but when you do find one, make the most of it.
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Come as You Are
Have you ever walked into a bar or restaurant and instantly felt underdressed and judged? It happens to me often, and that’s not even when I’m wearing waders, deck boots, or a shirt covered in tuna blood or striper slime. The bottom line is a bar that caters to lots of anglers is going to have a “come as you are” attitude. Furthermore, if you walk in with damp waders to grab a beer between morning streamer fishing and the afternoon hatch, the bartender should ask about the action, not glance at you in disgust. In coastal bars, non-angling patrons should be asked to move to the outside tables if you and the rest of the main clientele smell so bad, not the other way around.
Every fishing bar worth its salt has “that guy.” He doesn’t fish very often anymore, mostly because he’s convinced the fishing wherever you are is so terrible compared to “his day” that it’s not worth wasting his time. But even though he hasn’t been on the river or broken the inlet since 1997, he’s forgotten more than you’ll ever know about fishing and will happily tell you about it. Here’s the thing, though—he starts off as a nosey jerk, but play your cards right and he’s your best source of local information. Don’t get defensive, agree with everything and tell him just how right he is. Buy him a beer or two. Share your chicken wings. If you’re lucky, he’ll decide you’re OK and tell you about a hidden pull-off nobody else knows about where the fish are not pressured. It will be well worth the bar tab.