Lake Of The Woods: Heaven on ice


Mar 11, 2001
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Dec. 15, 2002


Grand Forks Herald

If the amazing start to winter fishing season on Lake of the Woods is any indication, these are the good old days

BAUDETTE, Minn. - If there's a place called Fish Heaven, it has to resemble Lake of the Woods over the past few days.

Something special's going on here as another winter fishing season hits full swing. Walleyes and saugers might not be jumping out of the holes, but they're certainly jumping on hooks.

Fishing like this doesn't happen very often.

No wonder, then, that Gary Moeller had a smile on his face Monday morning. A co-owner of Ballard's Resort near the mouth of the Rainy River, Moeller had just sent six happy anglers home to the Twin Cities with a heavenly fish tale they'll be talking about the rest of their earthly lives.

They'd gone through dozens of minnows, Moeller says, sorting through swarms of 8-inch walleyes and saugers to keep a limit of eater-sized fish. For good measure, they released fish of all sizes and brought a 10-pound walleye home for the wall.

Their two-day tally was 660 walleyes and saugers.

And no, that's not a misprint.

"I think everyone, for the most part, realizes there's the potential for this to go on, but to actually it experience it is something unique," Moeller said.

Moeller's account wasn't the first tale of merry mayhem to roll off the lake. A few days earlier, Kenny Miskavige of Grafton, N.D., reported landing six walleyes on a piece of venison jerky hickory-smoked flavor. Fishing north of Pine Island, Miskavige said the action started as soon as he and his two partners dropped their lines in the water at 8 a.m., and it didn't stop until they went home at 4:30 p.m.

"We must have caught 250 fish," Miskavige said.

Just about everyone who's been lucky enough to wet a line in Lake of the Woods this winter has similar stories.

So, it was with more enthusiasm than usual that Clayton Liend of Keewatin, Minn., Kevin Grinde of East Grand Forks and myself loaded our gear into a covered trailer Monday morning for the short ride to a Ballard's rental ice fishing house north of Pine Island.

For the next two days, all we'd have to worry about was baiting hooks and tending lines and catching fish.

That, it turned out, would be easy.

• • •

While Ballard's uses track vans to shuttle customers onto the ice most of the winter, they still were using all-terrain vehicles and heated trailers last week. Most of the other resorts in the area were doing the same thing.

Historically, Moeller says, the resort has its 25 houses on the lake and ready for action by Dec. 9. Given Mother Nature's fickle ways, however, that's not a hard-and-fast rule. Last year, for example, winter fishing didn't get rolling until Christmas.

So when a cold snap puts a foot of ice on the lake by early December, no one in resort country complains. Rental houses already have been on the lake nearly two weeks earlier than the area has seen in four or five years. The recent warm snap likely will delay heavy vehicle traffic, but the setback will be only temporary. A few cars and pickups already are driving on the lake.

"It's kind of nice taking a two-week break instead of a six-week break," Moeller said of the downtime between fall and winter seasons. "Before this year, a lot of our December people would hesitate and wait until January. Now, we'll start seeing a lot of them come back."

The fishing reports will help, too, because what's happening on Lake of the Woods right now is difficult to comprehend.

We found that out within minutes of dropping our lines into 22 feet of water. Not even Liend, who has a well-established history of tough fishing on Lake of the Woods, could put a damper on the action.

"This is the best fishing I've ever seen," he said.

We missed out on the typical morning flurry that first day because we didn't get our lines in the water until after 11 a.m. Not that there was ever a lull of more than a few minutes, anyway. And for a three-hour stretch from 1 until about 4 p.m., there was time for little else but pulling in fish.

Six hours in an ice fishing house have never gone by faster, even though we were too busy to talk much. By day's end, our hands looked like prunes from constantly landing walleyes and saugers or reaching in the minnow bucket.

No one kept track, but we figured our afternoon tally was about 175 fish. The biggest, a 6-pound walleye, slammed a blue-and-glow Northland Tackle Forage Minnow. Grinde adeptly assisted in steering the stubborn fish through the 8-inch hole in the ice. Liend watched. I reeled, smiled for a photo and put the fish back to make someone else's day.

• • •

While not even the experts can completely explain the fishing on Lake of the Woods this winter, healthy numbers of walleyes and saugers figure into the equation, says Tom Heinrich, Lake of the Woods fisheries biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Baudette.

"I don't have a good explanation other than we have a very good walleye population out there right now," Heinrich said. "Things are looking pretty good for saugers, too."

According to Heinrich, the two species pulled off banner hatches in the spring of 2001. Those are the 8- to 9-inch fish now providing almost nonstop action. Heinrich says the 2001 walleye hatch on the big lake appears to be one for the history books, and the strong year-class of saugers from that spring has come as a pleasant surprise.

He bases that assessment on results from fall population surveys on the big lake. According to Heinrich, walleyes from the 2001 hatch accounted for 60 percent of the fish sampled in last fall's survey. Besides huge numbers of 1-year-old walleyes, Lake of the Woods has several strong age groups of older walleyes, Heinrich says, including fish from the 1995, 1996 and 1997 year-classes. In biology-speak, a year-class is a population of fish the same age.

The oldest of those walleyes, from the 1995 year-class, now measure 18 to 21 inches, Heinrich said.

Sauger numbers are strong, too. Heinrich said the fall survey showed abundant populations from the 1997 and 1999 year-classes. The younger fish are about 10 inches, while the 5-year-olds measure 14 inches.

"There's just a slew of really nice-sized fish out there in addition to those small bait-stealers," Heinrich said.

That includes the potential for landing trophy walleyes of 10 pounds or more, Heinrich says, a fact that's already apparent this winter.

• • •

Grinde, Liend and I fished from morning until dusk the second day of our excursion. The fishing might have been slightly slower, but not by much. As a bonus, Grinde landed a chunky, 14-inch perch that would have been the envy of Packer fans everywhere. All of us lost heavy fish that spit hooks before they swam into view, prompting the expected utterances of frustration. I ended the day by releasing a 5-pound walleye, the final of many high notes in two days that went by way too fast.

How many fish did we catch? Hard to say, because we didn't take the time to count, but 300 wouldn't be out of the question. One thing's for sure: Those two days are going to be difficult to top anytime soon.

The $64,000 question, of course, is whether the bite continues. Most years, the near-shore areas now providing the phenomenal action will produce fish until mid-January. Then, the fishing slows as walleyes and saugers either are harvested or move farther out on the lake.

Meantime, hit the ice and enjoy the ride while it lasts. Or do like the group of anglers Tuesday, who asked a Ballard's employee if they could ride along to help him fill propane tanks outside the resort's rental houses.

They were tired of catching fish.

Stories such as that don't come along very often. Not even in Fish Heaven.

Dokken covers the outdoors. He can be reached at 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, extension 148; or by e-mail at

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