Russ Kendall’s Smoke House in Knife River, MN

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

The newspaper at the Kendall household is read on Saturday and wrapped around smoked fish on Monday. The sound of bells is constantly heard as customers or the UPS man come strolling through the door for smoked fish. “Line caught Alaskan salmon — arguably some of the finest fish known to man,” says Gordy Kendall, the third-generation owner of Russ Kendall’s Smoke House in Knife River. This is a place that had a reputation even before Andrew Zimmern showed up.

Cody Kendall, who spends most of his day cutting up fish or stoking the fire, will more than likely be the fourth-generation owner. “My grandfather showed me the knots that they used to tie on the packages before there was tape,” he says. Cody has been involved in the business since he was born and has seen it passed down from one Kendall to another.

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

W.T. Kendall, Cody’s great grandfather, opened the smoke house in Knife River in 1908. “It used to be a log smoke house that my grandfather built with an Indian buddy,” says Cody. The smoke house is now brick that has been blackened with years of fire and smoke. In 1952 W.T. passed the smoke house on to Russ Kendall, who later added his name to the family business. “I’m not sure when my grandfather changed the name, but he built a name for himself delivering my great-grandfather’s fish,” says Cody. Russ passed away in 2007, leaving the family business to Cody’s father, Gordy.

Cody Kendall says that “my grandfather used to catch his own fish for smoking.” The family still sources all of its fish locally except for the salmon, which are line-caught in the Bristol Bay in Alaska. Lake trout, herring, whitefish, and cisco are regularly on the menu. The smoke house ships fish and sells it out of a display case on site. Everything is retail and everything is sold; the fish never go to waste. Walleye also appears on the menu when they are in season. “In late summer they [walleye] come up the south shore,” says Cody. The Kendalls worry that one day they will not be able to buy the fish that their family has been smoking for years. Cody says that there have been fewer and fewer fishermen, as restaurants and people in the area have been sourcing fish from other parts of the world. “It’s definitely dying out — there is going to come a point in time when we are screwed.”

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

It takes about two days for the Kendalls to smoke a batch of fish. First they put a brine on the fish by soaking it in a salt and water solution. For the sugar-cured Alaskan salmon, they add brown sugar to the solution. The fish are soaked for 24 hours and are then put into the smoke house where a fire is tended for 12 hours. The Kendalls only use maple that is harvested locally. “There is a lot of it in the area, and it has a mild taste,” says Cody. Whitefish and herring hang in the smoke house, whereas cisco and salmon are placed on trays. “There are hot spots in the oven and you have to get used to where they are so you know where to place things,” says Cody. The fish are heated up to 145° F to meet state standards.

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park and Lou’s Smoke House in Two Harbors are the only other smoke houses in the area. “We don’t really see anyone else as competition — if you make a good product people will buy it,” says Cody. Mel Boogie’s, the only other smoke house in town, is now the Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen.

Russ Kendall’s is a destination for tourists and a regular stop for locals. All fish is sold retail and the customers keep coming back. It is the oldest smoke house on the North Shore and thanks to Cody Kendall learning the skill, it is going to be around for another generation.

Russ Kendall’s Smoke House

149 Scenic Dr
Knife River, MN 55609
9:30am-5:30pm every day of the year except Dec. 25
Gordy Kendall
Sugar Cured Salmon ($14.90 per pound)


  1. annmartina

    This is always a stop we have to make when we’re up North. The sugar cured salmon, smoked lake trout and whitefish are our favorites along with their amazing beef jerky.

  2. RO

    I like their fish that is not sugar cured. Why would anyone with a good tasting fish want to add sugar??

  3. dave

    No mention of Smokey Kendall’s who to the best of my knowledge still sells smoked fish a few hundred feet down the road? For the record, I have never stepped foot in Smokey’s as I have always been happy with Russ’s product but was always interested if Smokey’s was truly selling bad product or the victim of the family feud.

  4. Cody Kendall

    Hi there guys!

    Thanks for taking the time to read the article and to post some feedback. It always makes things more fun.

    Why would a person add sugar to good tasting fish? To make it even better is the short answer. The goal with the brown sugar is to keep it subtle because the fish is good by itself. We add a pretty small amount of brown sugar to a large amount of fish. To some extent I think that the brown sugar also helps the color of the fish a little as well. In the end we do sell quite a bit more sugar cured fish and you need give the people what they want, but that’s we have multiple options.

    As far as the other side of the family goes, there is no business connection between the two shops. Smokey was my grandfather’s brother and they did have a problem between them. Apparently it was enough of a problem so that Smokey went and built his own shop at some point. However, it was way before my time and my grandfather never told me about it. So the bulk of that remains a mystery to me.

  5. artsy

    If you had a good tasting fish, why would you smoke it? I know, everything tastes better smoked. And it was a method of preservation before refrigeration.

  6. morchella

    When I’m up that way we always try to stop at both Smokey’s and Russ’ shops.

    It takes a little bravery to wander into the deserted bar across from Russ Kendall’s. But, someone will show up amid the Betty Boop memorabilia to see what you’re after- beer or fish- and tell you a fishing story or a ghost story. Both admit there was a family feud way back when. No one seems to remember exactly why but no one has made amends, either.

    Both places have good smoked fish but the experience is totally different.

  7. Brad

    Grew up in the Twin Cities and went to school at UMD (1982)-How ‘Bout those ‘DOGs.I made regular trips up to Knife River for RK’s legendary fish.On the way to Ely a couple years ago I stopped in and was saddened to hear Russ had passed the previous Sept.-I lost my dad Dec. ’09. He always sent me fish to Salt Lake every Christmas. I saw Russ a couple years before he died-he was just pulling out in his Buick as I arrived. I always loved how his order forms and labeling were hand written.He did not seem technology driven( I still don’t see a website)although my dad told me a story about Russ buying Microsoft in its infancy.

  8. Eve

    My family and I stopped at Russ Kendall’s yesterday and bought smoked trout, salmon spread and some Talmadge Farm preserves and pickles (made locally in Duluth.) We served the fish at our NYE party last night in Mpls and everyone that tasted it loved it.

  9. Bev (LaFleur) Slade

    I grew up in Duluth and 1x month in season, we would drive up to Kendall’s with our stash of cheese-n-crackers. Next stop was Brighton Beach and we literally devoured our Ciscos and Whitefish and Salmon while the seagulls circled and squacked. I moved to Georgia, but every trip home includes a run to Knife River and Kendall’s! Now my kids bring the cheese-n-crackers, another family’s ‘tradition’, thanks Russ.

  10. Mark D

    I have been going to the Two Harbors Smoker for 25 years, and stopped in and got a few pounds of Jerky,, Noticed the Jerky pan was really wet and the Jerky was cut small: Red Flag went up, thats not what I rememberd in the past. Did not know the Smoker was under a new owner at the time, but did not take long (about a Mile) before I knew that love affair was Over!
    The guy behind the counter was not very welcoming and I did not like the sign that told us They preferred Cash, (Really?)

    Went down to Toms Logging Camp to pick up a shirt for our Granddaughter before heading back to the Ghetto. There I met two wonderful ladys who took the time to let me Cry about my wet and sticky Jerky purchase and boy did I Cry!

    Both ladys recommended Russ Kendall’s smoke house and the week after the 4th thats where we are headed! From everything I have been reading on the net, I should have stopped in to Kendall’s 25 years ago!

  11. BERNIE


  12. Pat Blair

    I’ve been to Russ Kendall’s with my sister when we have traveled up north for a sommer vacation. It is always a highlight of our stay to nibble on FABULOUS smoked fish the entire time. I live in No.Calif. and guess what appeared on my front door last night? Yup the best smoked fish anywhere!! My sister’s Xmas gift was 4 pieces of amazing R K smoked fish. My husband had never tasted it before and laughed at my excitement. Once I opened a few packages up and let him sample them, no more laughing just a satisfied smile of full appreciation. I’ve gotten smoked fish at my local farmer’s market and it was only okay. I quit buying it as I know what THE best is! Thanks for making this a Tasty Xmas!!

  13. jeri

    I stop at Kendall’s on the way up to bluefin, usual order is 2# brownsugar King, Then on the way home we stop again and bring home smoked salmon for family and friends. I think they look forward to us coming over with the newspaper wrapped fish and package of crackers:) See you all the first part of April!!!!!!

    PS: My family has tried other smoked salmon from the North Shore and Kendall’s is the BEST!!!!!!

  14. G Carlson

    Hey fellow RK fans – I grew up taking at least 2 trips up the North Shore a year with my parents, and we ALWAYS stopped by Russ Kendall’s for some fish. And I’ve grown up continuing the tradition – and spreading it to my friends and loved ones.

    Earlier this summer I got back to Minneapolis after a wonderful vacation this summer (camping along the shore and adventuring through the back roads and trails inland from Grand Marais), I searched for Russ Kendall’s website and found they had none … so I started a Facebook page for them.

    Like them on FB of you want – or just download the Mail Order Menu – I didn’t realize this until this last trip up, but they take mail orders all winter long! I know what I’m bringing to Xmas dinner @ my siter’s place this year … anyway thanks for the article, good to see that others have had the same lifelong love that I do!


  15. Dave

    I grew up in Duluth, and my Dad loved a Sunday afternoon drive up the Shore. These often included a stop for smoked fish – at Mel’s! I have the impression that Dad didn’t like Russ Kendall. When I reached adulthood, I bought my fish at Mel’s, too, until they closed. Well, if you want smoked fish, ya gotta buy it from them that gots it.

    I stopped in at Kendall’s, and was absolutely delighted! Gordy loves talking about his fish, and is always ready to give tips to folk to whom this delicacy is a new thing. I’m partial to the whitefish, myself, and now make sure I have a cooler along anytime I go up the Shore. The prices are decent, too.

    I live in the Twin Cities now, so smoked fish is a rare treat for me, but it truly is a treat. (I can’t bring myself to buy that vacuum-packaged stuff – everyone who loves smoked fish knows that it comes wrapped in newspaper!) I highly recommend Kendall’s, and now that I know about the FB page, perhaps I’ll have to try the mail order route.

    Gordy, Cody, keep up the good work!

  16. Tim Peterson

    Just came across this website,been years since I’ve been on the shore,stumbled across RK back in the 70’s steelhead fishing and made it a point to always stop on every trip,was sorry to here Russ passed away,I always smiled at the cashier checks Russ posted copies of from the casino’s he visited,good for him!

    Brown sugar lake trout and the cisco’s and herring are my favorite.

    I’ll be doing the mail order deal myself unless the gas prices come down.


  17. Tatiana

    Hello, I live in California. I saw Russ Kendall’s Smoke house on TV and I want to have some of that delicious fish. Is there a way to order online, by phone, or mail order?

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