BAUDETTE, Minn.-The thought of ice fishing on a morning when the air temperature is 26 below zero might seem like insanity to the uninitiated, but this wouldn't be a day spent outside sitting on a bucket.
Besides, as people up here in Lake of the Woods country like to joke, it's a dry cold.
The 2016-17 ice fishing season-an event driven by safe ice and not a date on the calendar-was just getting started Dec. 18 when a small fleet of lightweight SUVs towing heated trailers idled in the parking lot at Ballard's Resort. The trailers would soon haul a small army of anglers to heated fish houses set up on the big lake north of Pine Island.
The blue-and-orange horizon just beginning to appear on the Ontario side of the Rainy River had the look of a cold day, and exhaust fog filled the air.
A brisk wind added to the chill, but cold is a minor inconvenience when walleyes and saugers-and heated fish houses-await; early reports were favorable.
Joining me on this inaugural ice fishing foray to the big lake was friend and frequent fishing partner Brad Durick of Grand Forks and his 6-year-old son, Braden. Most of Braden's ice fishing to date has involved tip-up fishing on Devils Lake for northern pike, a "hands-off" style of fishing that offers more time for playing and running around on the ice.
The first-grader at East Grand Forks Sacred Heart describes tip-up fishing this way:
"When a pike hits, you yell 'flag,' run as fast as you can to the hole and pull in the fish."
Jigging for walleyes and saugers and spending the day cooped up in a warm rental house would be a first for the boy, and a charged-up Kindle was on standby just in case.
So was a full box of Little Debbie Cosmic Cupcakes, an ample supply of fruit snacks and enough Sprite to stem the thirst between bites.
Bring on the fish; we were ready.
Ice fishing on Lake of the Woods had seemed like a distant dream just a couple of weeks earlier, and the lake was wide open into early December.
A "polar vortex" that drove frigid air south from northern Canada had taken care of that in short order. By last weekend, the ice was 10 inches thick or more, and hundreds-if not thousands-of houses already dotted the frozen expanse of the lake.
Getting to that point hadn't come easy for Ballard's and other resorts, thanks to strong north winds that blew in with the cold during freeze-up and caused rough ice. Jagged ice shards spanned the visible horizon north of Pine Island.
Imagine choppy waves freezing in place and you get the idea.
Still, it takes more than rough ice to stop the wheels of commerce. Employees at Ballard's and neighboring resorts had spent several days excavating ice pile-ups and smoothing out trails to their rental houses.
Ballard's guide Nick Dunn warned the ride from the resort to the fish houses would be "kind of bumpy."
"It's definitely plenty rough," Dunn said. "We chiseled and chainsawed and scooped and shoveled. You name it, we did it.
"It's been a hassle with the rough ice, but if we're catching fish, I guess it's worth it."
Winter fishing is big business on Lake of the Woods, and anglers routinely log more than 1 million hours of ice time probing the big lake's depths for walleyes and saugers. Even last winter, when ice formed late and disappeared early, anglers logged some 1.4 million hours of fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Gary Moeller, a co-owner of Ballard's Resort, said this winter's ice fishing season looked like it was going to be off to another late start but ended up about average, based on his 20-plus years at the resort.
"All it takes is a few cold years, and then everyone gets it in their head you can start Dec. 1," Moeller said. "I can remember many times when it was just like this year-right before Christmas we'd get out there."
Those were the days, though, before resorts began using trailers and lightweight SUVs to shuttle customers onto the lake until the ice was thick enough to support the weight of Bombardiers and other tracked vehicles.
"You didn't have all these Jeeps and trailers and four-wheelers and Rangers," Moeller said. "The times were a little bit different, but it always seemed to me like the 15th of (December) or somewhere in there is when we'd start."
Moeller said there's always an early rush of anglers around Christmas, but the big push starts in early January. Even after all these years, Moeller says the popularity of ice fishing continues to amaze him.
"I just shake my head," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Lines in the water
The ride across Four-Mile Bay and over Pine Island to the fish house wasn't bad, thanks to the extensive trail-smoothing efforts of Dunn and others, and we were set up and fishing about 8:15 a.m. in a house atop 20 feet of water about half a mile north of Pine Island.
We would have had lines in the water even sooner, but getting things in order for the first trip of the season seems to take longer-especially when one of the anglers is a 6-year-old on his first big ice fishing trip.
True to reports, the fishing was slow for the first half hour or so, but the bite kicked into gear before 9 a.m. and remained steady until early afternoon.
Braden's first fish through the ice was a keeper-sized sauger, and he followed it up between games on his Kindle with an eater-sized walleye.
Then, during a mid-afternoon lull, Braden's bobber went down, and the bend in his ice fishing pole hinted at something larger than an eater.
His dad leaned over the hole to help land the fish as he offered some coaching.
"You move back, just a step," the elder Durick coached. "There you go buddy, you're doing good."
Then he saw the fish at the bottom of the hole and scooped it onto the ice.
The fish was Braden's largest walleye to date and measured 22½ inches. The smile on his face might have been about the same size.
"Whoa, whoa-the biggest walleye I ever caught in my life," Braden said, squealing in excitement. "Yay-he's a big one!"
The three of us easily landed 50 fish during the day-including three walleyes in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot-and the tally might have been even more. Reports the next day after the the weather warmed up were even better, Moeller said, but if the action we enjoyed on a day when the morning low hit minus 26 is any indication, ice fishing enthusiasts could do worse than a trip to Lake of the Woods in the next few weeks.
Braden said the highlight of the trip was sleeping on the top bunk in the cabin at Ballard's, riding in the back of the trailer and eating fresh fish cooked by resort staff right in the restaurant.
Oh yeah, the biggest walleye of his life was OK, too.
"This trip has gone pretty good," Braden said. "Some day in my life I will come back here."
• On the Web:
Ballard's Resort: ballardsresort.com.
Lake of the Woods Tourism: lakeofthewoodsmn.com.