Hot fishing, cold weather

BAUDETTE, Minn. -- If ice fishing season had an official opening day, it would look and feel a lot like the morning of Dec. 7 on Lake of the Woods. The temperature was anywhere from 20 below to 34 below zero, depending on which thermometer you wa...

Darrell Hogue clears ice
Darrell Hogue (left) of Border View Lodge and Shane Burk of Wigwam Resort work to clear ice Dec. 7 from an access road across Pine Island on Lake of the Woods north of Baudette, Minn. Workers from various Lake of the Woods resorts worked to clear ice that had piled up on shore during freeze-up and blocking an access point used to shuttle customers onto the lake. (Brad Dokken photo)

BAUDETTE, Minn. -- If ice fishing season had an official opening day, it would look and feel a lot like the morning of Dec. 7 on Lake of the Woods.

The temperature was anywhere from 20 below to 34 below zero, depending on which thermometer you wanted to believe, the frozen expanse of Lake of the Woods was blanketed with several inches of snow. ...

And the fish were biting.

Oh man, were they biting.

Nick Anthony had suggested as much the previous evening at Ballard's Resort. A longtime guide at Ballard's, Anthony and a crew of other resort employees had spent the day digging out from an early December snowstorm and getting fish houses set atop the ice north of Pine Island.


While Anthony and crew shoveled snow and worked to clear an access across Pine Island that was blocked with snow and massive chunks of ice -- remnants from a big wind during freeze-up -- the fishermen who were lucky enough to be on the ice for the resort's first day of winter fishing were treated to the kind of action they won't soon forget.

"They crushed 'em today," Anthony said. "Every house had at least 100 fish on the day."

So good was the fishing, Anthony said, that he ran into a dilemma he'd never before encountered. And the day was just getting started.

"I open the fish house door and a guy says, 'We have a problem,' " Anthony said. "I say, 'What's wrong?' He says, 'We already have our limit.' "

With an aggregate limit of eight walleyes and saugers -- no more than four of those fish can be walleyes -- that's a good problem to have barely two hours into an eight-hour day of fishing.

Heated comfort

The excitement was palpable Dec. 7 when a crew of fishermen, perhaps 20 of us in all, piled into three heated trailers for the ride across Four-Mile Bay and Pine Island to the fish houses set less than a mile off the island's north shore. Anthony drove one of the lightweight SUVs used to pull the trailers early in the season, before the ice becomes thick enough to support Bombardiers and other large tracked vehicles.

Every resort along the south shore, it seems, has the lightweight vehicles, and Lake of the Woods County must have the largest collection of Geo Trackers and Suzuki Samurais in North America.


A small army of pickups, snowmobiles and ATVs -- do-it-yourself anglers -- already had gathered in the parking lot by the Wheeler's Point boat access when Anthony drove by shortly after 8 a.m. The hoods on at least a half-dozen snowmobiles were up as anglers tried to coax the sleds to life in the subzero cold for the trek onto the lake.

Clouds of exhaust billowed into the frigid morning air.

At the risk of sounding like a softie, riding in heated comfort to a fish house where the heat was on and the holes were drilled was much more appealing.

They call it ice fishing, after all -- not cold fishing.

The snowstorm had noticeably delayed the progress of setting rental houses on the ice, and perhaps 100 permanent shelters dotted the lake north of Pine on Dec. 7.

That number likely has swelled by four or five times since then.

Unlike the previous day, when Anthony had to use a snowmobile to shuttle fishermen from Pine Island for the last leg of the trip, he was able to drive right to the fish house doors Dec. 7.

None of us were complaining.


The snow gave Anthony's little Tracker everything it could handle, but it wasn't long before he dropped us off at our fish house set atop 9 to 10 inches of ice and 21 feet of water.

We had our coats off and our lines in the water minutes later.

Popular pastime

It's that kind of infrastructure -- from plowed roads to heated transportation and both day and "sleeper" rental houses -- that has made Lake of the Woods one of the region's premier winter fishing destinations.

Oh yeah, and the fishing's not bad, either.

According to creel surveys from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, anglers since 2001 have logged more than 1 million hours of ice time on Lake of the Woods every winter except 2002.

Last winter, anglers spent a whopping 1.96 million hours on the ice -- more than double the 837,000 hours they logged fishing the big lake this past summer, the DNR said.

The fishing on the morning of Dec. 7 picked right up where it had left off the previous day, and the wait between bites wasn't long. At times, our depth finder screens literally bubbled with fish.

That, too, is in line with DNR surveys.

According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, fall population surveys showed an abundance of "bait stealer"-size walleyes and saugers, along with a strong population of 13- to 15-inch saugers and larger walleyes ranging from "keepers" to trophy fish weighing 10 pounds and more.

While walleyes typically bite best mornings and evenings, saugers remain active throughout the day and are the bread-and-butter of Lake of the Woods' ice fishing industry.

"The thing about the sauger numbers is they're really nice-sized saugers," Talmage said.

We fed our share of walleyes and saugers that were too small to keep, but catching a limit of fish to take home wasn't a problem. We also released walleyes measuring 20 inches and 22 inches that were too big to keep. Walleyes weighing as much as 12 pounds have been reported during the past week -- though not by us, unfortunately.

We didn't keep track, but the final tally for two of us was easily 100 fish.

Despite the bone-chilling cold, the ice fishing season certainly is off to a hot start.

On the Web:

Ballard's Resort:

Lake of the Woods Tourism:

Location of Pine Island

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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