BAUDETTE, Minn.-There's no official opening day of ice fishing season-that's up to Mother Nature-but for the crew at Ballard's Resort on Lake of the Woods, the winter season officially started Tuesday morning, when they shuttled their first anglers out to rental houses set up on the ice north of Pine Island.

Start slow. Play it safe. Ramp it up.

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There's plenty of winter up here in the border country, after all.

"We're very cautious, and we don't push it," Nick Anthony, 38, a partner in the family-run resort, said Tuesday morning as he rumbled across Four-Mile Bay in a lightweight Geo Tracker SUV pulling a heated, enclosed trailer used to transport anglers onto the ice.

Minutes later, he steered the rig up and over Pine Island, where a small city of fish houses already was set up on the ice.

To get to this point, Anthony and other resort workers had spent nearly a week checking ice, cutting holes with a chainsaw and measuring the thickness every 100 yards or so, before deciding it was safe.

"We like to have at least 10 inches of ice; obviously, 12 is better," Anthony said. "It's good to be rolling again."

Looking at the miles of ice and snow stretching across the horizon on this gray December morning, it's difficult to imagine parts of Lake of the Woods farther west had open water barely a week earlier.

A cold snap made short work of that situation, and many areas north of Pine Island by Tuesday morning already had 11 inches to 15 inches of ice. There was even more in some places, where persistent winds during freeze-up pushed sheets of ice on top of each other into massive, jagged shards.

"A week ago, none of this was out here, and now when you cross this island, you see how fast that city grows," Anthony said. "It's insanity."

Winter bonanza

No doubt ice fishing is big business on Lake of the Woods, where anglers last winter logged more than 2 million hours of ice time, based on results of a creel survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

A well-established resort infrastructure that includes vast networks of plowed roads, tracked vehicle transportation to areas beyond the roads and literally hundreds of rental houses has a lot to do with that popularity.

And then there's the fishing. According to DNR estimates, anglers last winter kept nearly 350,000 pounds of walleyes and 325,000 pounds of saugers. A big lake known for big waves becomes more accessible when the ice forms.

"A third of our business, maybe a little more, comes from the winter," Anthony said. "We always try to teach the public, try to coach them into, 'Hey, you don't need to keep eight fish every day you fish.' The goal is to sustain the lake and keep enough you're going to eat.

"The fun part is catching, not throwing them in the cooler. Obviously, there's different mentalities."

Wintertime anglers can keep an aggregate limit of eight walleyes and saugers on Lake of the Woods, but no more than four of those fish can be walleyes. Walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches must be released, and one trophy longer than 28 inches may be kept.

Behind the scenes

Beyond checking ice, there's a lot of work that happens before anglers can walk into a heated fish house, take off their coats and drop their lines down holes that are drilled and clear of slush, said Joe Henry, Lake of the Woods Tourism executive director.

Sure is nice for anglers, though.

"The people that work the ice, they're hard-working people," Henry said. "They're kind of the unsung heroes behind the scenes that maybe don't get all the credit, but man, because of their efforts, they're making life easy for ice anglers who come to Lake of the Woods."

The previous day, for example, a crew of six Ballard's guides had hauled 49 of the resort's 50 rental houses across Four-Mile Bay and up and over Pine Island onto the main lake.

One house at a time, they'll move the rentals into areas where walleyes and saugers are most abundant.

They'll drill holes, pile snow around the houses for banking and make sure propane tanks are full and heaters working. It's not their first rodeo, and a crew of two guys can have a house set up and ready for action in about 15 minutes.

This they will do several times throughout the winter, moving farther from shore as they follow the fish, Anthony said. As many as 15 full-time guides will work the ice when the season ramps up after Christmas, and a fleet of 14 Bombardier tracked vehicles will shuttle anglers when the ice exceeds 15 inches, he said.

"That's kind of the advantage we have now is we're big enough that the crew has grown so we can get a lot more done in one day," Anthony said. "It's kind of a veteran crew."

Chris Johnson is one of the workers on the Ballard's winter crew. A Coast Guard-licensed charter boat captain for the resort in the summer, Johnson on this day uses a side-by-side ATV with a plow to push snow up to the houses for banking.

A Grand Forks native who graduated from Red River High School and UND, Johnson says he likes the work and the opportunity to live in an area he grew up fishing with his dad and grandpa.

His wife also is from the Lake of the Woods area, Johnson said.

"I love it," he said of the work. "There's some physicality to it, but it's enjoyable. You've got to like to fish, and you've got to like working with people or this would be a tough job.

"I could go without cleaning fish every once in awhile, but after the first couple thousand, they get pretty easy," he adds with a laugh.

Long days

A typical day on the ice begins about 6:30 a.m., when the crew checks the vehicles and makes sure everything is good to go, Anthony said. Then it's scooping minnows and putting buckets together, depending on how many people are fishing, and hauling anglers onto the ice about 7:30 a.m.

As winter progresses, that can be a trip of 20 miles or more; the crew then stays on the lake to check on anglers throughout the day.

The trip back to the resort usually begins about 4:30 p.m., and then there's fish to clean. That means a typical day of 12 to 12½ hours, Anthony says.

"We're cleaning anywhere from 300 to 700 fish a day," he said. "It's amazing the numbers that come out of the lake."

If the fishing anglers enjoyed this past summer and fall is any indication, Ballard's and other resorts on the big lake are in for another busy winter. Tuesday was just a warm-up and offered plenty of evidence of good fishing to come.

Anglers are sorting through numbers of smaller walleyes and saugers to find keepers, with the occasional larger fish thrown into the mix.

"We're hoping for a good start here," Anthony said. "We've had a few of our guys out, and they've been catching a lot of fish so we're hoping for a great year.

"Again, it's Lake of the Woods and we're pretty lucky to fish here for sure. It spoils us. Even a slow day on Lake of the Woods is probably the best day on a lot of other lakes."

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