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Hardwater Handbook: Northern Ice Fishing Heats Up

Lake of the Woods offers fantastic action, from early ice until late in the hardwater season.

Hardwater Handbook: Northern Ice Fishing Heats Up

Photograph courtesy of Aqua-Vu

Few fishing destinations offer the multitude of species, numbers and quality of Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods. Walleyes are, of course, king of the north, and this lake is a walleye mecca spanning nearly a million acres. Perhaps the best part? It has a strong day bite throughout much of the southern basin and Northwest Angle areas, so there are plenty of close-by hotspots.

Joe Henry, a licensed charter captain, tournament angler and avid Lake of the Woods fishing expert, described it as a quality fishery with a “strong history” and “genetics for big fish.” He also pointed to the diverse array of forage—perch, tullibee, whitefish and a large population of emerald shiners—that helps sustain trophy-caliber fish.

If that weren’t enough, he suggested that Lake of the Woods also “has a slight stain to the water, which means walleyes and sauger both eat well throughout daylight hours.” It’s worth noting Minnesota’s longer season on border waters like Lake of the Woods, too.

“Resort houses run as early as December 10th, all the way to March 31st—and fish houses can be left out here an extra month,” Henry said. Because of the long season, there’s a large infrastructure of fishing resorts. Early ice also starts earlier here than most places, making it an ideal December destination.


SOUTH BASIN AREA

Breaking down this massive lake can be simplified on the Minnesota side into two main locations. The first is the south shore basin.


LakeofWoods
Lake of the Woods is a sprawling walleye mecca that spans nearly 1 million acres. (Photograph courtesy of Rapala)

Just out in front of the Pine Island narrows is a current area where the Rainy River dumps out through “The Gap.” For 30 miles out past this location and roughly 25 miles east/west is a broad basin (Big Traverse Bay) of roughly 30 feet of water that concentrates walleyes and saugers throughout the lower part of the entire lake.

Anglers can access the south shore through the popular Wheeler’s Point area just north of Baudette and its strong setup of resorts and established ice roads.

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Alternative access points working westward are Zipple Bay, Rocky Point and Warroad. These locations, especially Rocky Point, offer a means to work deeper into the basin and access the wide array of rock, gravel and sand reefs without covering as many lake miles. They also see slightly less traffic overall than the group of resorts running the ice roads from Wheeler’s Point, but it’s important especially for first timers to take advantage of the ice roads and resort network for safe passage on ice.

“Fishing here is all about the bait and fishing away from pressure,” Henry said, when speaking about the south shore opportunities. “Big Traverse Bay is a huge basin of mud with a few reefs that are magnets, but just like they’re magnets to fish, they can bring scores of anglers,” continued Henry, who opts to slide off of structure into the mud on weekends, and back onto structure during weekday quiet times.


For early season in December, fish closer to shore in 15 to 25 feet of water, especially early and late. Henry focuses on these depths until January traffic pushes fish to deeper water.

“Fish are chasing bait but also heading out away from all the sound created by lake traffic,” he said. Lesson being, fish away from others and focus on your electronics for cues of both bait and ’eyes.

As for lures, Henry likes a one-two combination of aggressive and finesse with the two lines anglers are allowed to use. He suggests “an active, noisy lure,” like a Rippin’ Rap or rattle spoon, in proven Lake of the Woods colors: gold, glow red or silver green. On the finesse outfit, fish a dead-stick with live bait on a plain hook. By offering fish both looks, you can later focus efforts on the best producer for any given day. Henry says fish might “not eat the jig but will often commit to a live minnow.”


NORTHWEST ANGLE

The second major location is the northern portion of islands on the Minnesota side known as the Northwest Angle. The angle is a small portion of Minnesota accessible via water or through Canadian provinces. In winter, large transport vehicles called “Bombardiers” transfer people and goods from the south shore to any of the several resorts on Oak Island, Flag Island and others in the Angle.

Fishing here is more structurally related; anglers can focus on any number of reefs and islands when pursuing big fish. Overall, this area gets less pressure than the south shore, so those searching for trophies can run the 40-plus miles of staked, groomed, all-lake snowmobile trail for a true adventure experience. There are resorts on several islands, notably Oak and Flag, where anglers can gas up, grab a burger and fulfill bait or tackle needs.

Henry recommends those headed to the Northwest Angle fish the array of underwater points, island structure and reefs at first. As the season continues, he said, “those fish slide to mud and go deeper.” The NW Angle is very diverse and can have multiple bites occurring simultaneously—shallow and deep, rock and mud alike.

“It’s a true trophy haven,” Henry said, “so don’t fish anywhere too long if you’re not seeing fish on your graph.”

LakeofWoods
Lake of the Woods has great multi-species opportunities. Pike action can be incredible; late jumbo perch are present, as are eelpout. (Photographs courtesy of Rapala)

MULTI-SPECIES SHOTS

Although walleyes get the lion’s share of focus on Lake of the Woods, trophy-caliber opportunities exist for many species. Pike are relatively abundant, especially later in the season as they stage in front of the many feeder spawning creeks and rivers dumping into the big lake. Fish can be found in small irregularities of sand and gravel just in front of the moving water, as they move progressively closer to the current areas approaching the spawn.

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Hanging a large dead bait with a twin treble A-rig works well at this time. Most big-pike anglers favor tip-ups or iFish Pros, and the end of March sees the largest fish of the season congregating in pinch points just out from their spawning sites. Most shallow-water activity this time of year will be from pike anglers, so take a few cues and set your spread.

Perch are available year ’round and are most often caught on small gravel and rock humps on the western half of the lake. Warroad and Springsteel are great access points to target perch, though be prepared to walleye fish to catch them. Crappies are primarily concentrated in deep bays toward the very northern portion of the NW Angle. The 30-foot basins (or deeper) just off the tip of major points can all hold crappies this time of year.

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