They call themselves the Sailorettes, and this group of Grand Forks-area women is proving that ice fishing isn't just a "guy thing."
If the photos are any indication, these women know how to have a good time on the ice during annual winter trips to Lake of the Woods, and they catch plenty of fish in the process.
The ice fishing trips have become a winter highlight, said Stacey Flesche, Grand Forks, a founding member of the Sailorettes; this year's trip was the fifth annual.
"We've always had such good luck at Lake of the Woods," Flesche said. "Lake of the Woods is just so much fun."
The inspiration for the Sailorettes came from husbands and significant others who dubbed themselves the Sailors, said Flesche, a respiratory therapist at Altru Health System.
"They would all go out and do their little fishing thing, and they'd come back and have all these stories," she said. "We were all kind of jealous about it, and I thought, 'Hey, let's do this one day.'
"They'd always come back and say, 'the Sailors strike again,' and da-da-da-da-da, so it was like, 'OK, we'll be the Sailorettes.' "
As coincidence would have it, Flesche says she came across a Facebook post about that same time promoting a women's fishing event dubbed "Broads with Rods" at Wigwam Resort on Lake of the Woods.
The Sailorettes made their first trip in January 2015, staying at Wigwam Resort, where they fished the first two winters.
"We did their program, and that was fun, and that's where it kind of started," Flesche said.
This year, the Sailorettes stayed at Ballard's Resort and fished Feb. 1-2, making a 17-mile Bombardier ride across the ice to a heated fish house set up atop 30 feet of water where they fished both days, returning to shore each night.
Also making this year's Sailorettes trip were Kelsey Schemionek, Erin Snyder and Trish Winter; Flesche's sister, Jamie Denning, also is a Sailorettes regular but was unable to attend this year.
The women caught saugers, walleyes, perch and even a big eelpout, sometimes called the "ish of fish" and a species definitely not for the squeamish.
"That was great," said Flesche, who hooked the eelpout while fishing in about 30 feet of water. I didn't see much of anything on the Humminbird (depth finder). I was just jigging my rod, and then all of a sudden, it just slammed. It was a bit of a struggle, and it took me a little bit to get in.
"Then, once I got it in, it broke the line, but Erin reached down and grabbed for it, and we got it in."
Flesche kept the eelpout and said her fiance, Jon Falch, plans to cook it up for them.
"Our guide wasn't too impressed," about having to clean the slimy fish, she said.
To a person, the Sailorettes were newbies to ice fishing on their first trip, although Flesche says she ice fished once as a teen-ager with her dad and sister, spending most of the time in the car with the heater on rather than sit outside freezing.
"The guide we had those first two years really helped us," Flesche said. "I've done a lot of summer fishing but not much for ice fishing and none of the other girls had. They would hardly even bait a hook without gloves on at that point.
"Now, we've progressed to where everybody is kind of handling their own stuff, which is really good."
Schemionek says she was one of the women who wouldn't bait her hook without gloves when she started.
Taking up ice fishing took a bit of coaxing, she says, but this was her third trip with the Sailorettes.
"The other girls started a couple of years before I did, and they were telling me how much fun it was, and how it was just a blast catching all these fish and trying to convince me to go," Schemionek said. "I thought I'd hate it. I'm a 'girly-girl,' and the first year, I didn't touch fish or anything like that, but they kind of taught me the ropes and taught me to do stuff as we go, and they made fun of me because I wore big gloves."
Schemionek landed bragging rights this year, releasing a 24-inch walleye she opted to let Flesche hold for the photo rather than holding it herself.
"Everybody keeps saying, 'Oh, it's not your fish if you didn't hold it,' " she said with a laugh. "I touched it with a finger-that's all I needed."
Venturing into the male-dominated domain of ice fishing was "a little intimidating," at first, Flesche says.
"Especially when you get out there, and it's all guys and they're all decked out and have all this stuff, and then there's us," she said. "But it's been fun every time."
She learned the basics by watching YouTube videos and talking to other anglers.
"I think the most frustrating thing was the fact that I was still kind of learning. I could hold my own, but nobody else really knew what they were doing," Flesche said. "But then, I taught them, and pretty much every year, they do more and more, and every year, they know more and more. We've all come a long ways."
Part of a trend
While not a daily occurrence, women are becoming a more regular part of the resort's ice fishing clientele, said Gary Moeller, an owner of Ballard's Resort.
"We did have a group of gals, coincidentally, that were here the week prior" to the Sailorettes, Moeller said. "There were six gals from Minneapolis that came up for a long weekend, and they said this is something they've started doing. It was their first time to Ballard's, but they said they'd been up to Lake of the Woods four-five times prior.
"It certainly is unusual. Summertime, we probably see a little bit more of it when you get friends and neighbors that are all gals or little reunion trips, but wintertime, it doesn't happen very often."
The big trend is family groups and women making the trip with spouses and kids, Moeller says.
"Now on a regular basis, the guides have these little portable bathrooms we're bumping around out there, and at times we might have four-five-six out there just because way more gals are doing the ice fishing thing," Moeller said. "Whether midweek or weekend, we're seeing lots of couples. It's become very popular, and it's something different."
No doubt, the annual Sailorettes fishing trip has become an occasion, Schemionek says. The women even have Sailorettes sweatshirts-with pink lettering, of course-and stickers they put up at every stop they make along the way from Grand Forks to Lake of the Woods.
"I think it's a tradition for me now," Schemionek said. "I love the girl time, I love the fishing-the whole trip just is a blast."