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Snowmobile-in ice fishing trip to the Northwest Angle an adventure in every sense of the word

Nothing came easy during a recent 45-mile snowmobile trek across Lake of the Woods from Warroad, Minnesota, to Oak Island.

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Trail signs point out various Northwest Angle destinations Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, on the staked, groomed snowmobile trail across Lake of the Woods between the Angle and Warroad, Minnesota.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. – Our recent ice fishing trip to the Northwest Angle could be summed up in these words:

“Well, that was an adventure.”

Indeed it was.

Nothing came easy for three friends and me during a recent 45-mile snowmobile trek across Lake of the Woods from Warroad, Minnesota, to Oak Island on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle. We made the best of it, though, and that’s about all you can do when picking a date on the calendar during one of the nastiest winters we’ve endured in recent memory.

Every leg of the trip was like pulling teeth, it seemed, but we persevered. We made it across the lake and back without incident, had plenty of laughs, enjoyed a fabulous dinner with friends on Flag Island one evening and even managed to catch a few fish, although the bite was pretty much nonexistent until the last hour before dark.

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Fishing was slow, but four anglers managed to scratch out enough fish for a tasty evening fish fry during a February 2022 trip to Oak Island on Minnesota's Northwest Angle.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Considering this winter has been like the weather equivalent of a root canal and a colonoscopy all rolled into one, simply making the trip at all could be considered a victory.

It looked pretty iffy for a while.

Plans go awry

The trip as originally planned was scheduled to begin Friday, Feb.18. A friend from St. Paul would fly into Grand Forks about noon, we’d pick up a few last-minute supplies, and three of us would head from Grand Forks to the family getaway in northwest Minnesota to spend the night.

We’d meet up with the fourth member of the crew near Roseau, Minnesota – he’d have the snowmobiles loaded on the trailer and ready to go – get an early start across Lake of the Woods on Saturday morning and perhaps even squeeze in a few hours of fishing before dark.

READ MORE FISHING COVERAGE:
Anglers will be able to harvest one walleye 20-23 inches or one longer than 26 inches, with fishing allowed from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Then, right on schedule, “Blizzard Finley” – as the Herald dubbed it – blew into town Friday morning and put the kibosh on that plan. By late morning, Interstate 29 was closed, flights into Grand Forks were canceled, and it was glaringly obvious that we weren’t going anywhere; nor would we have wanted to go anywhere under those conditions.

Sigh.

With his flight into Grand Forks canceled, our friend from St. Paul got his ticket refunded and booked a Denver Air Connection flight from Minneapolis to Thief River Falls that was scheduled to land at 11:15 Saturday morning.

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We were back on track.

Blizzard winds died down late Friday evening, and two of us left Grand Forks about 9:30 a.m. Saturday for Thief River Falls; we were back on schedule, albeit a few hours later than originally planned.

The weather wasn’t looking too bad as we headed north out of East Grand Forks on state Highway 220, but the wind kicked up again as we traveled east on Polk County Road 21 – also known as the St. Hilaire Road, also known as the Most Boring Road in the World.

The farther east we went, the worse it got. By the time we picked up our buddy at the airport in Thief River Falls, the idea of heading across 45 miles of Lake of the Woods by snowmobile in near-whiteout conditions was beginning to give me a sinking feeling in my stomach.

The Herald would dub the blizzard – the second in as many days – “Blizzard Gerald,” making it the seventh of the winter.

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Drifting snow reduces visibility Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, in northwest Minnesota for the second time in as many days.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Mother Nature had grounded us yet again. We spent the night at the getaway, where fortunately, the heat was on in the bunkhouse.

Watching and waiting

Originally, the Sunday, Feb. 20, hourly forecast called for tolerable winds in the morning and building throughout the day. We set the alarm for 5 a.m. with a plan of being on Lake of the Woods at first light.

By 5 a.m., the forecast had changed again – this time in our favor – and now called for winds to diminish throughout the day as an arctic blast descended.

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Another 6 inches of snow had fallen during the night in the border country. Buffeted by stiff southerly winds, the snow had blocked the driveway and the township road from the yard to the blacktopped county road about a mile away.

If the fourth member of the crew, who lives nearby, hadn’t come with his big tractor and snowblower at first light, we never would have gotten out of the yard, much less out to the highway. If we’d lost another day, we probably would have had to wave the white flag, pull the plug on the Northwest Angle trip and come up with some kind of a Plan B to salvage the days that remained.

I’d all but resigned myself to that eventuality, but fortunately, my skepticism proved to be unfounded.

Snow and ice

The 40-mile drive to Warroad was a bit of a process, complete with big snow drifts where roads hadn’t been plowed and glare ice where roads had been plowed. We made it, though, and were unloaded and on the trail across massive Lake of the Woods by late morning.

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A panda head-wearing patron sporting a jersey from the Australian men's national ice hockey team (yes, there is such a thing) was a hit Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022, at Sportman's Oak Island Lodge on Lake of the Woods.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Trails on the lake were rough, as expected, after two straight days of strong winds that would have made grooming a wasted effort, but we chugged our way north one trail stake at a time. The drifts were like the equivalent of 3-foot whitecaps in places.

The snowmobile trek took almost three hours, but we made it to Oak Island and were set up and fishing just in time for the late-afternoon walleye bite.

Mother Nature wasn’t done with us yet, though. The wind dropped, but so did the mercury, and the air temperature flirted with -30F a couple of mornings.

We’d picked a good year to rent heated fish houses.

Trails were groomed – a beautiful sight if ever there was one – for the ride back across the lake to Warroad on Wednesday, Feb. 23, and we made the trip south in about half the time it took to go north.

The trip had been an adventure in every sense of the word, and we left the big lake feeling like we’d beaten the odds and really accomplished something.

We’re already making plans for next winter. …

A fishing trip to Florida.

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The Driftwood Point Shelter on Lake of the Woods is seen Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Maintained by the Northwest Angle Edge Riders snowmobile club, the shelter provides a convenient trail break spot for snowmobilers traveling across Lake of the Woods to and from the Northwest Angle.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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