For many die-hard anglers, December means only one thing: Ice-fishing. This year, try going in style at these ice-fishing lodges.
Ah, winter. It’s cold. It’s snowing. It’s blowing. And there’s absolutely nothing to do, thanks to the layer of ice covering almost everything.
But wait a tick!
Ice. That means ice-fishing, and some of the hottest angling, albeit a tad chilly, of the season. Fortunately, the eastern half of the country sports an almost infinite list of ice-fishing destinations, many of which support excellent angling, not to mention accommodations that are second-to-none. This trio will certainly get you started.
THE LODGE AT DEADWOOD,
To say the town of Deadwood is alive and well and one of the most entertaining places on the planet would be an understatement of almost infinite proportions. Located in western South Dakota’s unimaginably beautiful Black Hills, Deadwood is the annual setting for countless indoor and outdoor events.
Spring, summer, and fall are Deadwood Days, complete with fantastic weather and plenty to do in The Great Outdoors; however, that doesn’t mean that everything comes to a standstill once winter arrives. Cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, predator hunting: It’s all there. So, too, is some of the best and most diverse ice-fishing to be found anywhere.
“Within 45 to 50 miles of Deadwood are a number of incredible lakes,” said Lee Harstad, executive director of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce. “Whether it’s huge schools of yellow perch at Deerfield Reservoir or trophy lake trout at Pactola Lake, there truly is something for every ice-angler here. The Black Hills provide a picturesque backdrop for these daily adventures, while Deadwood is the perfect base camp, with fine dining, lodging of all types, and non-stop adult gaming to give those who weren’t so fortunate on the ice a chance to redeem themselves.”
Although Deadwood features dozens of bunking options, The Lodge at Deadwood provides a picturesque setting, complete with all the amenities, including the aforementioned fine dining and gaming, as well as being conveniently located for those seeking to branch out and explore The Hills’ ice opportunities.
It’s important to remember that driving conditions in The Hills can be sketchy at best in winter; however, home-bound anglers can certainly find plenty to do up and down Deadwood’s main thoroughfare, at least until county crews scrape the snow away from the hard roads.
There are fishing destinations within reach of Deadwood in nearly every direction. First are Deerfield Reservoir and Pactola Lake, which sit south of Deadwood along Deerfield Road and Highway 385, respectively.
“Deerfield is a go-to,” said Harstad, himself a very avid angler. “Located in the center of The Black Hills and accessible by a mix of gravel and pavement, Deerfield is large enough to hold state-record quality splake (brook trout/lake trout hybrid) and brook trout. The perch population is booming here, too.
And bring plenty of bait, as some of the schools of perch can number in the thousands.”
This is a DIY ice-fishing adventure; however, bait and tackle, as well as ATV and snowmobile rentals, can be found at Mountain Meadows Resort located on Gillette Prairie Road on the south side of the reservoir.
To the east of Deerfield, Pactola Lake holds the reputation of being a producer of huge lake trout, with the state record laker (27 pounds, 14 ounces) being caught there in 2003.
South of Pactola and also along Highway 385, Sheridan Lake holds rainbow and brown trout, crappie, and yellow perch, while north of Deadwood, the 8,000-acre Belle Fourche Reservoir provides plenty of wintertime action, courtesy of excellent populations of walleyes, crappie, and the ubiquitous yellow perch.
$ Lodge at Deadwood, South Dakota
LAKE OF THE WOODS, MINNESOTA
If you want an example of synonymous terms, look no further than Minnesota’s famed Lake of the Woods and walleyes.
The Lake of the Woods, or LOW for short, provides a year-round fishery for a variety of species, including walleyes, sauger, northern pike, yellow perch, and, within seasonal guidelines as set forth by the fishing regulations, muskellunge; however, it’s the tasty walleyes that bring anglers in droves from around the globe to the shores and waters of LOW.
That, and the relaxation afforded by a wonderfully restful night’s sleep at the Sportsman’s Lodge at Rainy River.
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“My family has been here since 1992,” said the owner, Greg Hennum, “but the business was established in ’71. As far as lodging is concerned, we have seven new villas built within the past four years, 10 cabins, and 30 lodge rooms. There are two restaurants, an A-Frame bar, and live entertainment on many of the weekends.”
There’s also meeting space for up to 300 people, plus lake tours, dock rental, and, for the kids, an indoor swimming pool.
“We see a lot more families nowadays,” said Hennum. “And a lot of kids fishing between Christmas and New Year’s as part of their school break. We cater to the families in terms of ice-fishing in that they need no experience or equipment. We take them to and from the fish houses, and provide everything they’ll need.”
And it is the fishing, and the hardwater walleye fishing in particular, that brings folks to Hennum’s Sportsman’s Lodge each winter.
“We typically start (ice-fishing) on December 10th, and continue through March 31st,” said Hennum. A 15-minute run from the lodge is the norm to find fish during December, Hennum explained. “We run a fleet of 45 day (fish) houses,” he said. “Each is a four- to six-man house, heated, and some even have Port-A-Potties right outside. We take you out in the morning, and bring you a hot lunch if you wish. At the end of the day, the guides will clean your catch and bring it to your room.”
Sauger and walleye, said Hennum, are the key target LOW species, with walleyes commonly measuring 12 to 18 inches, and the “odd sauger” up to 20 ticks. Although some anglers choose to drop jigging spoons and other hard baits into the frigid depths, Hennum explains it’s primarily a live-bait bite on his home waters. “Live chubs,” he said, “though some fishermen will use live emerald shiners. It’s about 80 percent a live-bait fishery here in the winter.”
$$ Sportsman’s Lodge
Lake of the Woods, Minnesota
KEVAN PAUL – CLEAR LAKE, IOWA
Does 7,000 fish put on the ice by more than 500 hardcore — and some not-so-hardcore — anglers in roughly four hours sound like your idea of a good time? If so, the Clear Lake’s annual Yellow Bass Bonanza (YBB) is going to be right up your alley. And one of the founders of the YBB is Kevan Paul, owner of Paul’s Fishing Guide Service, and the newly opened Clear Lake Bait & Tackle Shop.
“In 2016,” said Paul, “the Yellow Bass Bonanza brought in more than $300,000 to the local community. It’s just a great time, with a lot of people and a lot of fish on the ice.”
Interesting to note, the YBB held their tournament banquet in 2016 at The Surf Ballroom, famous — or infamous — for being the scene of Buddy Holly’s final performance in February of 1959.
Today, as he has since 2011, Paul guides on Clear Lake full-time, both during open- and hard-water seasons. His business, he said, is growing by the proverbial leaps and bounds.
“We’re running one skid house (for ice-anglers) and two sleeper houses, but we’re adding a third sleeper,” said Paul. “Day trips, and we’re fishing out of Clam flip-overs and hub blinds. For folks who’d like to stay on the ice, we have 20-foot Ice Castles (for rent), with skylights, a livewell built into the cabinetry, sleeping for four, forced air heat, hardwood floors and trim. Weekend and weekday lodging is available in the sleepers, along with guided ice-fishing packages.”
Comfort to “the Nth degree,” is the end result, as Paul explains; and the amenities definitely help take the chill out of the ice-fishing experience.
The bread-and-butter fishery here is for yellow bass, which are in the same family as white bass and striped bass, and are, explained Paul, “a very unique and prolific fish. Aggressive like yellow perch, with a white, firm flesh.”
Crappies are second in popularity.
“We do have a good walleye fishery on Clear Lake,” Paul said, “but the walleye bite is tough in the winter.” Fortunately, the no-limit yellow bass more than make up for any slack in the hardwater walleye catch. Small golden jigging spoons tipped with Euro-larvae are Paul’s go-to rigging for piles of yellows.
“The trick,” he said, “is to load the hook up with Euro-larvae. Like six or seven. The bite is fast, so you get one out of the hole and drop it back down before the school moves off. This way, you’re only having to rebait every four or five fish. Catching 100 or 200 yellow bass is a good day.”
$$$ Kevan Paul – Clear Lake, Iowa