You know they take their walleye fishing seriously here as you drive into Baudette, Minnesota. There sits a huge statue of a walleye. A layer of snow covers the top of the walleye because it is winter. Behind it, blanketed in ice, is the Rainy River which flows into Lake of the Woods where ice fishing is legendary. Lake of the Woods is renown for having some of the best ice fishing in the Midwest.
It is late January and four of us are sitting in an ice house on Lake of the Woods.
It is a gray day with perhaps the promise of snow. Winds drift the light snow across the ice. Other than the wind there doesn’t seem to be much sound. As you look outside the expanse of ice disappears into the horizon where some many miles later Lake of the Woods reaches Canada. Lake of the Woods straddles the United States border with Minnesota to the south and Canada with Ontario to the north. We are sitting on almost three feet of ice and fishing in about twenty eight feet of water.
Mike Hallas of Woodbury, Gerry Fuzzey of Eden Prairie and Damien Aguilar of Minnetonka all calling Minnesota home and I from Hudson, Wisconsin, drove across the frozen land of Minnesota. We headed through Baudette continuing to Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort on the southern end of the lake. We are staying at a cabin at the resort and now, the next morning, are bumping across the ice on Lake of the Woods in a bombardier which takes us to our ice house.
The bombardier is a truck mounted on a track, not unlike that of a tank, which hauls fishermen and their equipment to their ice houses on the lake. Ice houses are simple, rustic wood huts with a propane heater, folding chairs and holes in the floor where the ice has been drilled out making ice holes which we drop our lines through.
Light was starting to push the night away as we got to our ice house.
Jackets are hung on nails on the side of the ice house as we each rigged two ice rods to fish with. We start one rig with an ice jig and the other a simple hook and split shot sinker under a slip bobber. Within minutes the first slip bobber begins to sink under the water. We catch a couple of walleyes and sauger too small to keep, but it is a start.
As rustic as our ice house is it is warm and comfortable as we sit in just shirt sleeves. I have fished Lake of the Woods when temperatures dipped to twenty degrees below zero and colder and have been perfectly comfortable in a light shirt while fishing in an ice house. One of the good things about fishing with a resort like Arnesen’s is no matter how cold it gets you walk from a heated cabin to a heated bombardier to a heated ice house. It is a very comfortable way to ice fish.
The fish we are targeting are walleye and its cousin the sauger.
Both fish are fun to catch and great to eat. Every year we pick up a few yellow perch. These perch are big, running up to a foot in length, and as another cousin to the walleye also good tasting and a welcome addition to the fish bucket. The other fish we see most often caught during the winter are eelpout, a fresh water cod, and the tullibee both of which are considered a nuisance fish and are released back down the ice hole. Regardless of their lowly standing they both put up a great fight on light tackle and are fun to catch.
Damien pulls up on his light ice rod and it is bowed over. The rod begins to plunge as he cranks on the spinning reel. “It is a good fish,” he tells us. A little excitement goes a long way in an ice house and we are all watching him. I am on my knees next to the ice hole, waiting to see the fish. I see it pass underneath the ice hole and yell that it looks like a keeper walleye. A minute later, Damien is leading the fish through the ice hole and as the head splashes on the surface of the water, I reach over and grab it, pulling it out of the hole and dropping it on the floor.
Damien scoops it up, pulls out the hook and slaps it up against a ruler on the side of the ice house. It is a seventeen-inch walleye and is the first fish to go into the bucket. We are on our way to our end of the trip fish fry.
Lake of the Woods has very generous limits.
If everyone in your group catches a limit of fish, some of those fish need to be eaten that night so you can go fishing the next day. As tasty as walleye and sauger are this is certainly a pleasant problem to have.
An hour later Mike yells he has a fish and then yells it is a big fish. The fish takes off and is pulling line off the reel as the drag grudgingly gives out line. Mike stops the fish and turns it, getting it coming up toward the ice hole when the fish runs off again. This seesaw battle goes on for a few moments although Mike continues to gain back more line than he is losing.
This time Damien is kneeling next to Mike to help him land his fish. The fish fills up the ice hole and Damien grabs the fish. It is big walleye and when we measure it we find it is twenty inches long. After a quick photo it is slid back into the ice hole and disappears under the ice. Mike has the big fish and at the end of our fishing trip the next day Mike’s fish is still big fish.
On this day we are catching most of our fish on hooks and sinkers under a slip bobber so we pull out the ice rods with jigs, switching both rods over to slip bobbers.
Although the ice jigs haven’t worked this day there have been days when we caught lots of fish with ice jigs so it is always worthwhile starting the day with both baits. Although I have a tackle box full of ice jigs there are a handful of jigs which seem to always work well and are the essentials to anyone fishing Lake of the Woods.
The old standby Swedish Pimple has been around for over half a century and is still a reliable ice jig and should be in any Lake of the Woods ice fisherman’s tackle box.
My other favorites are the Buckshot Spoon by Northland and the Jigging Shad Rap and Jigging Rap by Rapala.
A quarter-ounce jig is the right size, and color can make a difference on Lake of the Woods. Gold is always my first choice followed by anything with chartreuse. Minnows should be used on all the jigs. Some Lake of the Woods ice fishermen just use the minnow head.
Let the jig drop and hit bottom, then lift it six or eight inches.
Jig it up and down for a moment or two before dropping it back to the bottom again. Often as the bait hit’s the bottom it sends up a spot of sand or silt. This attracts game fish as they take that as a sign of active feeding bait.
The slip bobber is a simple rig.
I use a size six or eight hook with a small split shot about six inches from the bottom. The split shot should be heavy enough to get and keep the bait near the bottom. There are any number of slip bobbers which work well but the one I prefer is the number four Stealth float by Thill.
The key to effectively using a minnow under a slip bobber is keeping the minnow near the bottom. Walleyes, sauger and perch feed on the bottom at Lake of the Woods. I normally rig my slip bobber line with the minnow being from two to six inches from the bottom. It is the most effective depth.
It is mid afternoon.
The four of us are catching fish—some go into the fish bucket and those too small are released back through the ice hole. My float drifts across the surface of the ice hole and begins to descend under the water. Reaching for my ice rod I hold it, watching the bobber slowly drop further down the ice hole. Once it reaches about a foot below the water I pull up to set the hook. My ice rod is bent in half as the fish takes off. The fish keeps trying to run as I am cranking on the spinning rod and I feel it slowly begin to rise through the water. The fish fills the ice hole as I drag it out of the water, flipping it on the floor of the ice house.
It is a fifteen-inch sauger and will go into the fish bucket but before I have the chance to pull the hook out I look over at my other rod.
I don’t see the float. Leaning over I see the float disappearing down the ice hole.
Dropping the first rod I quickly grab the other ice rod, set the hook and start cranking. This fish didn’t feel as heavy as the first one and a moment later as it is clearing the ice hole I see it is a smaller fish which I quickly released. Although the second fish was too small to keep it is exciting anytime you get two fish almost at the same time.
Ice fishing has changed much since I first started ice fishing as a kid in the 1960s. I don’t believe there is any sport which has seen such an explosion in technology as ice fishing has. Some of the technology can be intimidating, leaving you with the feeling if you don’t have all latest and greatest gadgets you won’t be successful. At Lake of the Woods that is not the case. Now if you have all the gadgets that is fine but if you don’t you don’t have to worry. You will still be successful. The secret to catching fish through the ice on Lake of the Woods is keeping your bait close to the bottom. It is just that simple. A couple of ice rods, a handful of jigs, some hooks, sinkers and a couple of floats is all you need.
Going through a resort such as Arnesen’s takes much of the worry out of an ice fishing trip. They provide transportation, generally with the bombardier, to a comfortable ice house where the holes are already drilled or they will drill holes for you while you are getting settled. The bombardier ride is part of the adventure. They will check on you a couple times during the day and if you aren’t catching fish they will offer to move you to another ice house. Can’t ask for a better deal.
At the end of the day when the bombardier returns to take us back to the resort we have eleven fish in the fish bucket. We have more than we need for our fish fry. We also released another dozen and a half fish which were too small and Mike’s big walleye which was too big to keep.
Later, on our last night at Lake of the Woods, it is dark outside with the wind blowing across the lake—black with an occasional light off in the distance. Fish have been cleaned and I have a pot of oil bubbling on the stove. A pan has potatoes and onions frying in butter. There is a pile of fish fillets, breaded and ready to be cooked. Another couple of plastic bags have more fillets to take back home for two people in our group. The cabin fills with the smell of cooking fish and in a few minutes we will be sitting down to a meal of freshly caught walleyes and sauger.
It has been a great trip and that is why ice fishing at Lake of the Woods is so legendary.
- written by Mike Yurk
IF YOU GO: There are numerous resorts along Lake of the Woods catering to ice fishermen. A Google search for Lake of the Wood resorts will provide you a number of options. In Baudette you can get groceries, gas, fishing tackle, winter clothing and boots and anything else you might need or that you forgot to pack. If you need a fishing license you should plan on getting it at one of the sport shops or bait shops in Baudette as resorts may or may not have the capability to sell fishing licenses.