BAUDETTE, Minn. – Sometimes the key to enjoying the outdoors, at least when it comes to lake ice fishing on the huge, frozen Lake of the Woods on the US-Canada border, is to keep it the outdoors, well, the outdoors.
Maybe it’s towing a travel trailer called a wheelhouse that, once on the ice, collapses to become an ice shack. These luxury portable fishing cabins have price tags like new cars.
Or maybe it’s coughing up a hundred and fifty bucks or so each to rent a shack with bunk beds to play cards, cook a meal, catch some ZZZs and, yes, fish while the spirit moves one. Generator ready (own or rented), some of them even include big screen TVs.
For a handful of us outdoor media types, two dramatically sub-zero days last week meant sleeping in cozy cabins at River Bend Resort (riverbendresort.com), relaxing and resting in our Miles Lab Bar & Grill and spend days in cozy fishing coops owned by the resort and served by guides.
Days? For parrots?
“There’s no night bite here,” guide Alex Peterson said as he showed us around the spacious shack, big enough to fish six or more, heated throughout the day by an LP furnace to keep the holes from re-freezing.
For some reason walleye here are especially active from 9 to 5, not the low light periods better known for walleye fishing elsewhere, including our own Saginaw Bay. (This bay, by the way, still had open water a few days before I flew north to Minnesota.)
We had followed Peterson in our own vehicles on the “ice road” marked and maintained by River Bend, as well as other roads from other resorts and guide services. The ice, by the way, was over two feet thick.
Brandi Johnson, who with her husband Paul has owned River Bend for 11 years, explained that each resort fishes its own area of the lake, respecting areas claimed by others, sometimes decades ago, even though there is no real ownership of these public waters and no way to restrict the fishing public.
A few miles offshore in the River Bend area, we were soon having our lines in the dozen or so holes in the coop, watching the fish finder screens (some provided by the resort, some ours), watching the our baits Some of us were trying Live Target (livetargetlures.com) Sonic Shads, Flutter Shad and Rattlebaits, to which we added a fathead minnow to a hook or two; they loved the fish.
We caught lorona, and even more of its close relatives, saugers. In the case of pike, there is no minimum length here, but fish between 19 ½ and 28 inches must be released unharmed. An additional 28-inch trophy may be retained as part of the daily combined limit of six walleye or sauer, no more than four of them.
Every time the door opened, often for a quick walk to an outhouse on ice, clouds of steam poured in.
Out of a cloud of steam emerged guide Peterson with a stack of hot pizzas reserved at the lodge for mid-day delivery! The organization of such a pleasure was just one of the topics covered by posters on the inside wall of the co-op, along with fishing rules, etiquette at the top of the lake, tips to post on the social networks and more.
We only caught a couple of walleyes that needed to be measured to make sure they weren’t in the protected slot. It’s no saginaw bay, but the yellow perch’s big-sized cousins are delicious, as River Bend proved with our delicately battered and deep-fried catches as an appetizer two nights in a row.
At dinner on our first night, mother and son Caroline and Oliver Taylor had shared their catch, capping off a two-day stay. They had left their home in Jupiter, Fla., after fishing-crazy 15-year-old Oliver came across ice-fishing videos on the Internet, and his mother, a commercial airline pilot , booked an adventure that they all liked and thought about repeating.
Some of our crew said the Taylor’s pattern made a lot of sense: taking a short break from mild Florida weather coming north, rather than the typical, all-too-temporary mid-winter hiatus of snowbirds west that are taken heading south.
Who is the winter customer at Lake of the Woods, I asked Brandi Johnson?
“It has changed a lot. They used to be outdoorsmen, tough fishermen. Now there are more families, many more women, we have many people who have never fished with ice.”
To fish like we did, budget about $220 per person per night and fishing day, with discounts for midweek and longer stays; Meal packages are also available.
Halfway through our first day of fishing, I did some more math:
Seventy and a few degrees in the hut.
Colder than 25 below outside.
Yes, a difference of about 100 degrees.
That, and the willingness of tasty walleye and sagebrush to hook baits and lures, made a strong case for enjoying the outdoors while keeping it outdoors.