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Missing angler, 73, found alive after floating for 12 hours on Devils Lake

BRAD DOKKEN: A winter of unusual catches

Unusual catches always make me wonder, so I had to do some checking this week when Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort on Lake of the Woods posted photos on Facebook of two crappies that were caught recently in one of the resort’s rental houses.

Crappies are relatively common on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods, but they’re seldom reported in Minnesota waters, where walleyes, saugers and perch are the bread-and-butter species of wintertime anglers. This winter, though, I’ve heard of nearly a dozen crappies caught on the Minnesota side of the lake.

That’s a small number, considering the thousands of anglers who have converged on Lake of the Woods since December, but it still seems like more than usual.

In an effort to satisfy my curiosity, I contacted Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the Department of Natural Resources’ area fisheries office in Baudette, Minn. Based on the past several years of gill net surveys on the south end of the lake, Heinrich said he hasn’t seen any significant trend toward higher crappie catches.

“Due to their shape, crappies aren’t really all that vulnerable to gill nets, but I suspect that we would pick up on a population explosion,” he said.

Still, my question also piqued Heinrich’s curiosity, so he looked at his records since 2007 and sent me a chart showing the crappie catches by year in the DNR’s gill net surveys.

Oddly enough, crappies have been on an upward trend since 2010 on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods.

“I think what happens is that we occasionally get into a school, and that jumps up the catch rate,” Heinrich said in an email. “In 2013, we sampled 0.39 crappies per net. That converts to 21 fish, which I think is the highest I’ve ever seen. The biggest one was between 10 and 10½ inches long, which I guess would be about 5 years old.”

Long story short, there might be a few more crappies on the south end of the lake — but then again, maybe not, Heinrich said.

Paul Arnesen of Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort said their customers catch a few crappies every winter, but it’s not common. A customer caught a muskie — another uncommon species on the south end of the lake — a couple of weeks ago, he said, and the resort’s rental houses even produced a couple of lake trout last winter.

A species of cold, deep water, lake trout on Lake of the Woods typically are limited to Whitefish Bay, Clearwater Bay and adjacent areas in Ontario waters, but they occasionally venture into Minnesota in the winter, when water temperatures are cold across the entire expanse of the big lake. I’ve heard of lake trout caught through the ice near Oak Island, Garden Island and even Buffalo Bay in Manitoba waters in the past.

“We catch far more lake sturgeon” than crappies, muskies or lake trout, Arnesen said.

As the old saying goes, you just never know. …

Five for five

Speaking of unusual catches, longtime friend and fishing partner Brad Durick and I were lucky enough to land Devils Lake’s five primary game fish species last Sunday during an afternoon of ice fishing.

That would be perch, walleyes and northern pike — all of which are commonly caught through the ice — and crappies and white bass, which are less common through the ice.

Durick, of Grand Forks, caught two crappies, the biggest being 13 inches, while I caught a 17½-inch white bass, my first through the ice. The white bass gave me quite a battle, and I wouldn’t complain about regularly catching them through the ice. The fish was every bit as scrappy as the white bass I’ve caught in open water and gave my lightweight ice fishing gear everything it could handle.

Where were we fishing, you ask? Sorry, but fishing etiquette forbids me to get any more specific than to say we were somewhere on Devils Lake. I will say we caught the perch, crappies and white bass in 32 feet of water, while the walleyes and pike came after we moved into shallow water near shore for the last two hours of daylight.

Considering we were on the ice at the crack of noon — a common occurrence when Durick and I go fishing — it was a memorable trip and marked the first time either of us had seen five species caught through the ice.

Barring a blizzard, I’ll be on Lake of the Woods in early March, when a couple of friends and I are scheduled to spend the weekend in a sleeper house. Maybe there’s a crappie down there with my name on it.

Or a muskie. Or lake trout. Or sturgeon.

The way this winter’s been, you just never know.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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