Thousands flock every winter to the famous waters of Lake of the Woods to enjoy some of the best ice fishing in North America. Most take advantage of the unique infrastructure that has been created, traversing from a heated resort into a heated ice rig to a heated fish house without lifting a finger. Others prefer the challenge of doing it on their own with their own equipment, either driving out on a plowed ice road or navigating on a groomed snowmobile trail across the lake up to the NW Angle. There are many options in these parts. What most visitors don’t realize is what happens behind the scenes to make this incredible environment possible.
Prepping for the winter season for some is a year round process. For most, though, the process starts up towards the end of summer. Resorts begin the process of getting their ice fishing vehicles, trailers, fish houses and other equipment ready for the upcoming ice season. For the many fish houses, there is painting, adding new skids, repairs, checking heaters, fixing windows and a myriad of other tasks that are all part of the process.
Part of this process is the decision of how many fish houses to retire from the fleet. Some of these houses have seen 40 below temps, gale force winds, thousands of fish and have been the stage for families, groups and couples making lifelong memories.
From a mechanical perspective, light ice rigs such as Geo Trackers with heated trailers are the norm for transporting people out to the fish houses early in the season. These rigs are fixed up, tuned up, welded and made operational so that when that first ice forms in early December, they are ready to roll.
As the ice thickens, many resorts will transport visitors in a bombardier or possibly a homemade type of track rig. These rigs allow clearance over large snow drifts and exceptional traction with long tracks instead of tires. The rigs are typically steered with big skis on the front of the vehicle similar to snowmobile skis, rather than tires that would get stuck in the deep snow. Fully heated, these rigs are part of the experience of ice fishing the Walleye Capital.
In early December when the ice forms, resorts from around the lake up through the NW Angle are working hard marking trails on the thickest ice. Most resorts use a chainsaw to check the thickness of the ice. The guide bar of the chainsaw is marked off in inches. While slowly cutting down into the ice, the ice workers can get a quick measurement of the ice making note the ice level on the guide bar when the water begins to spray up. This is a quick way to check the ice in a variety of different spots while staking trails.
On the south shore, many resorts cross Four Mile Bay eventually reaching Pine Island, a thin strip of land that separates the bay from the main lake. This island is made up of primarily sand. As soon as they can make it across, resorts that have a road or bombardier trail will actually cut a hole in the ice and pump water into the sand.
“We really soak the sand with the water. This not only makes travel easier, but reduces wear and tear on fish houses and other equipment,” explains Brian Ney of Adrian’s Resort. “This is normally done on cold days so the road will freeze hard, making it easier to cross the island.”
“Once to the lake, the lake ice is usually more consistent than the bay ice. Some years, there can be areas of really rough ice. We normally chop it down and then flood it, making the ice road as smooth as possible,” says Ney.
There are a few pilots in the area that will fly the lake to observe and take notes on what part of the lake freezes first, what part of the lake stays open the latest, w
here there might be rough ice, which gives resorts some help to stake a trail on the thickest and most consistent ice.
Resorts continue to test the ice out to fertile fishing grounds. Closely monitoring the ice every day, they know when it is right to allow the first bit of travel from ATV’s with collapsible fish houses. After a short time of cold weather, resorts begin pulling out the first few fish houses, which on an average year is around December 10th. These first houses out, in many cases, experience some of the best fishing of the year. All winter long, it is important to follow the marked trails of the resorts as thickness of the ice can obviously vary.
Typically around December 15th, the snowmobile trails are staked from the mouth of the Rainy River across the lake to the Northwest Angle to the north, Warroad the w
est, and to Baudette along the Rainy River to the south. These trails really open up travel to the many resorts up at the NW Angle.
Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge stakes and grooms the trail across the lake. “We actually use six snowmobiles the day we mark the trail. Two sleds haul trailers with the stakes. Two more go ahead and drill holes that are about 2 inches in diameter while the other two follow and stick in the marker poles.” explains Hennum.
The poles are painted black with reflective tape around the top, not only to see the trail, but the black marker allows melting in the warmer weather months. “With those black markers, the ice around the marker melts nicely in the spring, allowing us to pull markers out while moving along at a nice clip on a snowmobile. We have one person drive while the other sits on the back of the snowmobile and pulls the trail markers,” explains Hennum. He grooms the trails on the lake and the Rainy River on a regular basis throughout the winter.
Nick Painovich, owner of Zippel Bay Resort is also busy preparing for the busy ice season. He, like many resort owners, is one of the first people out early on thin ice checking conditions and staking a trail. “I invested in an airboat a number of years ago to make things easier on me. This way, as I am checking ice on Zippel Bay and eventually out on the main lake, I have a sense of security.” Painovich, like many others, uses a chainsaw marked off in inches to quickly and efficiently test ice depths. He places flags in the areas he has checked that are coming along nicely, and a double flag in areas that are a bit thinner.
With the goal of thicker ice, Painovich sometimes helps Mother Nature out a bit. “Out in the open areas, we get some wind that blows the snow off the ice, creating thicker ice. Back in the narrow parts of the bay, the wind doesn’t hit these areas so much and snow starts accumulating. Because of this, I will take out my airboat and give it some power, blowing much of the snow off of the ice, which allows it to freeze quicker.”
Zippel Bay is famous for their Igloo Bar on the ice. This oversized fish house is in the shape of an igloo, painted like ice blocks and shaped like a real igloo. With over 1,000 square feet on the inside, electric lights, big screen TV, full bar and partial food menu, this is definitely a gathering spot for visitors.
Outside of the Igloo, there are actually two heated porta potties that fit the theme, looking like small igloos. Some patrons were commenting about a cold toilet seat in the outhouses, so heaters were added. Each night, there is a bonfire outside on the ice. “People seem to like the fire. Whether they step outside to smoke or simply to enjoy the camaraderie, it has been a hit.”
“We take the Igloo Bar out in two pieces and with a come-along, pull the two pieces together once the bar is in the right spot. We need about 15 inches of ice to bring it out,” explains Painovich. “We also prepare the ice some before setting the igloo. I actually will build a snow bank around the spot where the Igloo Bar will be placed. I punch a hole in the ice and pump lake water on the ice flooding it. I will build this spot up, actually forming a crown on the ice of 3 – 4 inches also giving the ice more strength.” Painovich said the Igloo usually gets out on the ice before Christmas.
The Igloo is placed on a reef in front of Zippel Bay. Did I mention, there are holes inside the bar to ice fish? For $5 per hour you can rent an ice hole and fish while in the bar. As you can imagine, it gets quite festive when a patron pulls up a nice walleye. “Later in the year, we move the Igloo to the west from the rock just a bit and actually get into some big pike,” explains Painovich. Pike over 20lbs have been caught out of the bar. Definitely a must see attraction.
Yes, the winter months at Lake of the Woods are filled with good times, snowmobiling and certainly lots of ice fishing. The next time you come up and are being transported out to a fish house, driving on an ice road or are zipping along on a snowmobile trail, give an extra thought about all of the preparation that takes place to make this frozen environment an epic ice fishing mecca.