Rainy Lake's Ice-Fishing Smorgasbord

This border water with Canada has trophy pike, big walleyes and slab crappies, which makes it a great winter destination.

By Noel Vick

It's hard to envision a Canadian border water that's just coming of age. But Rainy Lake is the source of countless photos of stringers of leg-length pike, potbelly walleyes and slab crappies. But those are open-water tributes. Ice is another thing.

No kidding, Rainy is just getting its winter legs. Nearby and connected Lake of the Woods - another nation-divider with a fabled fishery - is far better known for its hardwater production. Not to say it's any better, though. Minnesota's share of Lake of the Woods - the southern basin - is simply more accessible and less intimidating to brave. Big Traverse Bay, as it's dubbed, is pretty straightforward. A guy can get his arms around it.

What's deemed "accessible" and "straightforward" is relative, though, particularly in these times of lightweight portable fish houses and fleet snowmobile travel. With the right gear, and safe and reliable information, you can fish about anywhere and at any distance.

Barry "Woody" Woods from Woody's Fairly Reliable Guide Service concurs. He boasts of the "portable, mobile ice-fishing experience" that Rainy Lake bestows. With its "tons of islands, bays and reefs," Rainy is certainly built for the adventuresome, not to mention those anglers who are taken aback by backwoods sights and sounds as much as limits of pike, walleyes and crappies.

With that said, not all of Rainy Lake's secrets are miles and hours away. In fact, according to Woody, there are legitimate spots inside a minute's snowmobile ride from his lakeside resort.

Northern pike are key constituents at a couple of these proximate locations, too. Rainy pike are creatures of the weeds. They wheel about shallow bays for as long as vegetation stays in place. Lack of snow and ice prolongs their stay in this 3- to 10-foot range, where they'll remain for an indefinite period of time during mild winters.

Rainy's pike population is prestigious, too. On a guided excursion when the dinner bell is ringing, Woody and his guests might catch-and-release 50 pike, with the average fish measuring 30 inches. Members of the group also have a legitimate chance of tangling with something 40 inches or better, particularly during early and late ice. Consider, too, that Rainy Lake's pike season is continuous but astutely limiting as far as harvest goes. Anglers are permitted three pike in possession, but only one 'gator can exceed 28 inches.

Woody says the best shallow-water pike fishing happens in Cranberry Bay, Lost Bay, Saginaw Bay, Jackfish Bay and the entrance to Black Bay. During midwinter, Woody turns his compass toward reefs, narrows and current areas. Specifically, Woody probes for midwinter pike in the Brule Narrows and American Narrows, as well as about Community Reef, Stub Shoals, Erickson's Reef, Olson's Reef and the steeper slopes at the mouth of Black Bay.

Getting pike to eat is a cinch, too, as long as you follow Woody's lead. He jigs first and flags later. Armed with a stiff baitcasting rod and trustworthy Abu Garcia 5500, he pumps a Northland Bionic Bucktail Jig with a smelt or ciscoe attached. It is an effective package and very entertaining to wage war with, too. On the tip-up, he uses a smelt or small to medium live sucker. The agitating sucker is quite capable of summoning a cruising walleye, and that pleases Woody.

In Woody's normal ice-fishing regimen, he hunts walleyes even more often than pike. Opportunely, too, both species often share residence, especially when the shallows are still active. Walleyes, like pike, relish the greens.

Woody works the 3- to 10-foot depths with various gizmos. His first pick is a Jigging Rapala - W2 to W4 - in blue/chrome or glow/green. He tips the dangling treble with a minnow head. Option two is a spirited Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, which emits valuable sound in a stained habitat. His final line of offense is a larger Lindy Fat Boy.

Once the shallows fade, Woody moves his clients to the reefs, narrows and mudflats where walleyes cavort in 15 to 20 feet of water. The sludge is especially attractive, too, due to the perch factor. Hefty perch mingle with walleyes over Rainy's invertebrate-infested flats.

It's fair to note that Woody isn't wasting time with diminutive walleyes, either. In fact, he says it's often difficult to catch a "limit" because of the number of fish caught inside the 17- to 28-inch protected slot. Not a bad problem to have, though. With that said, "eaters" are attainable, and Woody isn't shocked when 'eyes longer than 28 inches pose for photos.

Rulebooks go out the window by midwinter, though. Lush cabbage beds continue to hold fish, as do shallow breaks, but the primary garden party is over. By January or so, Woody isn't bashful about rummaging deep, locating bottom-hugging fish in 25 to 50 feet of water and down to 80 when they're hovering. The suspending pattern is food based. Rainy walleyes will search everywhere for packs of smelt, tullibees and juvenile whitefish.

Feeding hours on Rainy harmonize with the average 9-to-5'er. Its somewhat murky water encourages daytime bites and all but eliminates the chances of overnight walleye action. As a bonus while jigging the fathoms for walleyes, Woody and clients often catch saugers and big whitefish.

Rainy's most unlikely character might be its greatest winter asset. Huh? The black crappie is best linked to fertile and tepid waters - certainly not the cliffs and chill of Rainy Lake. Woody knows better, though.

"The crappies are awesome. They're huge," he says. And on a good day his clients will stick a bundle of fish, which usually includes genuine 16-inchers. Last winter an associate caught, measured and released a 19-inch crappie.

Unlike Rainy Lake's walleyes and pike - which are as comfortable clasping to shallow rocks as they are weeds - its crappies seem to always inhabit the 30-foot realm. But depth isn't the only requisite ingredient. Woody says crappies also favor heavy breaks that pour into mud basins. To fool them, Woody plunges a small Jigging Rapala or a Northland Forage Minnow Spoon.

Comrade and fellow Ice Team member Dave Genz is equally as enamored by Rainy Lake crappies and its abundance of forage. "The clouds of zooplankton on Rainy are so thick that it looks like fish on the Vexilar," he says. That wealth of wintertime food obviously pumps the growth rate and quantity of fish. Genz, like Woody, endorses the 30-foot depths. He's particularly fond of Black Bay.

Genz, a proponent of daytime fishing, is keen on Rainy's tea-colored composition and subsequent day bite. However, regardless of what the clock reads, he lowers Lindy Techni-Glo lures - phosphorescent baits - because even the brightest sunlight is stifled or negated at 30 feet.

Genz slips into walleye-mode nearer

dusk. He abandons the crappies and ventures to a rocky reef or funneling narrows inside the 15- to 40-foot window.

America's share of mighty Rainy Lake encompasses some 220,000 surface acres and has numerous public access points. The best of which, according to Woody, is the beach in Sand Bay right outside of International Falls.

Department of Natural Resources assessments of Rainy Lake are rather glowing as well. The most current information from 2002 says that Rainy entertains 12 year-classes of walleyes, with a significant number of fish hatched in 1998, 1997 and 1995 - a fine mixture of sizes. The 2002 lake census revealed the second-highest walleye catch rate on record, too. Crappie populations are also near historical levels.

For guide service and lodging, contact Woody's Fairly Reliable Guide Service and Resort at 1-866-410-5001 or visit them on the Internet at www.fairlyreliable.com. The International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce can be reached at 1-800-325-5766 or seen online at www.intlfalls.org.

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