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Dave Johnson of Eden Prairie, Minn., watches the screen of his electronics for signs of fish while fishing in a sleeper house Monday morning at the end of a bone-chillingly cold weekend on Lake of the Woods. (Brad Dokken photo)

Brutal temps and near-blizzard winds fail to put the chill on ice fishing stay

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NEAR ROCKY POINT, on Lake of the Woods — The weather blasting the frozen, moonlike surface of Lake of the Woods last weekend pretty much summed up the winter of 2013-14:

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It might have been cold … but at least it was windy.

Still, 30 below zero and 25 mph winds are minor setbacks when ice fishing in heated comfort, and the parking lot at Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort north of Roosevelt, Minn., was packed last Saturday morning. Anglers, some 300 strong, were taking everything Mother Nature threw at them, united in their pursuit to beat winter and put a few fish in the bucket.

The resort’s fleet of 120 fish houses was scattered for miles across the frozen horizon, and most of them were occupied.

Bad weather?

Big deal.

We hadn’t planned on January-like weather when we booked an early March stay for two nights in one of Arnesens’ “sleeper” houses, but it’s not like we were outside sitting on buckets.

Joining me on this unseasonably cold and blustery weekend on the big lake were Scott Jensen of Minneapolis and David Johnson of Eden Prairie, Minn. We go back a long ways — Jensen and I grew up just down the road from each other near Roseau, Minn., and we met Johnson while in college at Bemidji State University — but we hadn’t ice fished together in several years.

Our weekend on the lake would be a chance to catch up, relive old times and perhaps even trade a few barbs. Fish — while the desired outcome of any fishing excursion — would be a bonus. And given the extended patch of cold, blustery weather, I cautioned Jensen and Johnson to be realistic in their expectations.

Fishing in a cabin

Renting one of Arnesens’ 10-foot-by-24-foot sleeper houses is like renting a cabin. The resort has 43 sleepers that can fish four people and are set up with a table, chairs, porta-potty and a gas cook stove and oven. “Hammerhead,” the name of our sleeper that was set off the edge of a submerged rock reef atop 3 feet of ice and 30 feet of water, had both gas and solar LED lights.

Roughing it we weren’t.

The track vehicle, a GMC conversion van with a 350 engine, that shuttled us from the resort to our sleeper a couple of miles offshore, carried a sizeable load of food and gear as it rumbled across the ice. Arnesen’s has a fleet of the vehicles it uses to transport anglers from shore to the resort’s rental houses.

Joe Fish — is that the perfect name for a fishing guide or what? — said he prefers the track vans over the more traditional Bombardier vehicles that also are popular on the lake.

“You can haul 12 people in here,” said Fish, a longtime Arnesen’s employee who oversees the resort’s sleeper houses. “They’re higher maintenance, but more reliable. Bombers are hard to get started at 30 below. This is the way to go right here.”

Eating well should be a part of any fishing trip, and Johnson had assembled a menu that included soup and sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, frozen pizzas (it was a college reunion of sorts, after all), breakfast burritos and bagels.

Jensen had made sure early in the planning that we wouldn’t forget coffee.

“Verifying that you DO have a coffee maker,” he wrote one morning in an email as the trip approached. “You guys will not want to be in a little shack with me without one.

“Just sayin.’ ”

Yes, I assured him, we had coffee. And even if the fish didn’t cooperate, we wouldn’t go hungry.

A lot of things can go wrong when you’re staying on a frozen lake at 30 below zero, but the lights and furnace worked, and Jensen even got to fish in his bedroom slippers while sipping his morning coffee.

Not quite like fishing off a dock on a warm summer’s morning, but not bad for a nasty weekend in March.

According to Fish, winters such as this one are tough on equipment. Houses occasionally get flooded or frozen into place, he said, propane tanks need to be filled, equipment breaks. Sleeper houses are moved to a new location after every group checks out, and day houses get new ice every four days or so.

“They went to move a house (last Sunday), and the skids stayed there when it was jacked up, so that’s a mess,” Fish said. “It’s that time of year when everything breaks down almost.”

Call it the unseen cost of fishing in comfort.

Big business

The throng gathered at Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort last weekend confirmed the popularity of winter fishing on Lake of the Woods.

Ice fishing is big business.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, anglers logged 1.963 million hours on the ice last winter on the big lake, more than twice the 837,000 hours of fishing pressure recorded this past summer.

“Lake of the Woods has four seasons: Pre-winter, post-winter, winter and not winter,” said Paul Arnesen, the resort’s assistant manager and the fourth generation of Arnesen to make a living on the lake. “Pretty much everything revolves around the ice fishing season — at least on the south end of the lake.”

A big reason for that is the rich infrastructure that Lake of the Woods’ winter fishing industry provides. From transportation in heated tracked vehicles and accommodations that include sleeper houses that resemble small cabins to — in many places, plowed roads — Lake of the Woods is more accessible in winter than summer.

One thing’s for sure: Few people would have been on Lake of the Woods last weekend without that kind of infrastructure.

“If you’ve got four guys that come up to Lake of the Woods in July, there’s a possibility the wind may blow out of the northwest at 30 miles an hour,” Arnesen said. “What are you going to do in January on a weekend? In July, you can do all kinds of different things, but there are limited opportunities for outdoor recreation in the winter, and I think that plays into it, as well.”

As expected, fishing last weekend was tough, with spurts of action in the morning and later in the afternoon and lulls during the middle of the day. The catch featured a mix of saugers and walleyes, including an abundance of 6- to 7-inch bait-stealers from a banner walleye hatch last spring.

Tullibees, a member of the whitefish family, also were abundant.

That’s been the pattern the past few weeks, said Fish, the guide with the perfect Lake of the Woods name. Fishing typically improves in March as days get longer and weather improves (which hopefully it will).

“The fish are so spread out right now,” he said. “It’s the same everywhere.”

Without getting too specific, the fisherman whose name wasn’t Johnson or Jensen caught the most fish, but Jensen landed bragging rights with a 22-inch walleye he caught Monday morning while sipping coffee in his bedroom slippers.

That’s not a bad way to start a Monday. But in winter on Lake of the Woods, it’s just another day.

Info:

Arnesens.com.

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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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