Up until this winter, memories of my first and only ice fishing experience were of sitting countless, butt-numbing hours on a plastic bucket, hunched over a hole through the ice on a backwater Mississippi River slough.
A few days of angling recently through the 30-plus inches of the frozen surface of the Lake of the Woods (LOTW) north of Baudette, Minn., near the Canadian border, has changed all that – replacing all those miserable recollections with a whole tackle box of enjoyably pleasant ones!
Despite the blistery cold winds that nearly doubled the teeth in the already frigid 27 degrees below zero bite in the air, this day would be one of almost luxuriant warmth as we ventured out ice-fishing for walleye, LOTW style. The short, brisk jaunts through the sub-Arctic morning air – from our very comfy Villa at Sportsman’s Lodge to the full-service main building, and on into their warm Bombardier shuttle vehicle at the end of the dock – all began to weave together into a tapestry of splendid service and adventure here in Minnesota’s far, far north.
We headed out over 20 miles onto the frozen vastness of this expansive lake. It’s over 70 miles long and wide, with over 14,500 islands creating over 65,000 miles of shoreline! It’s so large that it could be considered the sixth Great Lake. I peered through a quarter-sized peephole I scraped in the frost on the window to get a knothole view of snowy, wind-swept nothingness that extended to the horizon. Every now and then a lone ice shanty, or an occasional cluster of houses, stood out against the bleakness.
After a half-hour, bone-rattling but impressively warm ride, our driver brought the half-track and skis on our Bomber’ “bus” to a stop right off the front door of our propane-heated “ice” house. Inside, wooden benches and folding chairs are lined up along a series of precisely-augered holes in the ice. A dark, tea-colored, icy-browed eye stared back up at me – the water here is stained with tannins leached out of the surrounding coniferous forests.
It’s midmorning already, perhaps way into prime fishing time elsewhere. But here in these dark-stained waters, sunlight isn’t an issue. Beneath three feet of ice, it’s the same time all day. The guides confirm what the seasoned ice anglers in our group have already figured out.
“In these waters, gold works best for walleyes, maybe with some red or sparkles on it, but gold for sure”, they advise, and add, “There’s crappies down there, too!”
Rummaging through our arsenals we each show what we’re packin’: Northland Macho Minnow, gold/red on one side, glow red on the other; a small glow pink Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon; a few Fin Wings and even a Kastmaster I’d used on salmon in Alaska – a smorgasbord under the ice!
Our group is large enough that we can apply our preferred angling tactics across a few holes each. No tip-ups today, but some decide to dead stick with a half minnow while others opt to dance a jig just off the muddy bottom. Tracked-in snow stomped from our boot soles had already thawed into puddles on the plywood floor when the first strike came. It was a small, 14-inch sauger – a hungry man’s keeper, but today it escapes the frying pan.
Several smallish walleye and saug’s were hauled up throughout the day; a few keepers, lots of throw-backs. That is until a dead stick began to come to life, one subtle twitch, then another. Our host deftly lifted a behemoth walleye from up out of the depths. By the time its tail emerged, over 31 inches of fabulous LOTW walleye had cleared the ice! A Snyder’s Flying Ant, gold with a couple of glow red dots tipped with a live fathead minnow one foot off of the bottom had successfully seduced this lunker.
After a day of cozy-warm angling, we treated ourselves to “refreshments” at the Zippel Bay Igloo. Nestled onto the ice a mile or two off shore from the classy north woods lodge of the same name, the foam-insulated Quonset-like dome of the Igloo reflected the setting sun off its powder blue ice-block facade. Zippel Bay Resort owner, Nick Painovich has been pulling this LOTW landmark out onto the ice for the past six seasons. The novelty of a bar out on this frozen lake is exponentially raised when you consider the hinged bench seats that fold back to reveal holes in the floor at each table, directly above a hole in the ice. Winter fishing, Minnesota style!
As if all this wasn’t already overwhelmingly “Died-And-Gone-To-Ice-Fishing-Heaven” fantastic, I still had time to enjoy a scrumptious bowl of walleye chowder at the Border View Lodge (unfortunately the “home-made” ice cream is only served during the summer!) Make sure you check out the vintage B/W photos along the walls in the dining room. It’s yet another premium, northern rustic LOTW offering of great food and service.
Clearly the Lake of the Woods experience offered by its entire visitor industry takes ice fishing to a whole other level – beyond just the sporting side of it – to a place of style, hospitality and class for the whole family to experience and enjoy.
Shop Sportsman’s Guide for a great selection of Ice Fishing Gear!
Top Photo: The author and his group caught some dandy crappies in the Northwest Angle, too!