They don’t call it The Walleye Capital of the World for nothing. Even on a walleye factory like Lake of the Woods, anglers still have to position themselves on fish to be successful. If you have been there before you realize there is a lot of ice. Understanding the typical walleye patterns and movements can help in putting more fish on the ice and eventually into the fry pan.
With such a diverse watershed, it helps to break it down and understand the three parts of this area. The first is the Rainy River. As our international border with Canada and flowing out of Rainy Lake 60 miles to our east, the river flows west to the town of Baudette and turns north another 12 miles where it dumps into Lake of the Woods. A few resorts ice fish the river closely monitoring the ice. Because it is a flowing river and ice conditions vary greatly, we strongly suggest working through a resort or guide on the river and absolutely not venturing out on your own.
The second portion of the lake is Big Traverse Bay. This is the main basin of the lake extending for approximately 30 miles north/south by 25 miles east/west. This area is fished by resorts, has ice roads for those on their own and extensive groomed and staked snowmobile trails across the lake.
The third portion of the lake is the Northwest Angle. This is the northernmost point of the continental U.S. and is where the 14,552 islands of the lake really begin. When you look at a map of MN, this is the tip that sticks up into Canada. To drive to the NW Angle, one must travel through a part of Canada and then enter back into the U.S. The way around going through Canada is traveling across the lake staying in MN via ice (or boat in the warm weather months) using resort transport or snowmobile following the marked snowmobile trail that goes to the Angle. The trail from the south shore to the Angle is about 42 miles.
Regarding fish movements, let’s focus on three areas of the lake, two that exist in Big Traverse Bay and the other being the NW Angle.
Big Traverse Bay
Ice fishing in this area, obviously dependent on weather and ice, typically begins the end of November or beginning of December and continues through March. Often times, resorts will work to mark an initial trail for ATV traffic only. From there as ice thickens, resorts will begin to pull out permanent fish houses. On average, rental fish houses go out around December 10th.
Early ice can be excellent ice fishing as the walleyes are still close to shore and are concentrated. “We see some nice fish early and in addition believe that walleyes from the Rainy River start moving back into the lake sometime between Christmas and New Year’s,” explains Lanny Vollmer, a guide at Border View Lodge who has over 18 years on the lake. “Around that time, we will turn the lights on in the fish house each morning and the holes will be full of emerald shiners. Between the oxygen levels dropping in the river and shiners moving into the lake, walleyes move into the lake and push the shiners up into the holes.
During this time, we encourage customers to work the entire water column jigging just a few feet below the ice. Electronics will not detect these fish as the cone angle is too tight. Those who actually try working those fish below the ice can be greatly rewarded,” explains Vollmer.
As the season progresses, most resorts start sliding out to deeper depths. “We basically follow the fish and move to get on top of new fish. We don’t think the saugers move around much. Between a spot getting fished out and the constant noise from plowing and traffic on the ice, the walleyes shift around. We will fish a spot 3-4 days and move the houses to get on a new batch of fish.”
“When the river starts flowing in March and the scent of the creeks are in the water, walleyes will start moving closer to both gaps.” The lighthouse gap is where the Rainy River enters the lake through Pine and Sable islands. The Morris Point gap is where Bostic Creek enters between the west edge of Pine Island and the shoreline of Morris Point. “Until that time, walleyes are out in the basin often times suspended feeding on minnows and young tulibees. The larger tulibees will be on the bottom and often caught by anglers but the smaller tulibees will suspend and so will the walleyes,” explains Vollmer.
The reefs of the western basin
Believe it or not, things on this part of the lake are not the same as the main basin. First off, this part of the lake has numerous reefs that pop out from the miles of mud. Second, the walleyes on this end of the lake are more prone to spawn along the shoreline vs. running up the Rainy River.
“Starting out, we target reefs closest to shore,” explains Tim Hill, long time guide with Arnesen’s Rocky Point. “Part of the reason for this is they are loaded up as they haven’t been fished for a while. The other reason is ice conditions initially prevent us from heading out to the offshore reefs. We will access them later in January as ice thickens. Areas such as Twin Islands, Gull Island reef and others are normally good early.”
“As January and February roll around, we start moving houses to off shore reefs,” explains Hill. “We start out on different spots on the reefs but eventually move to the edges and eventually maybe a quarter mile off the reef into the mud.”
“As March rolls around, we start to target reefs closer to home and even shoreline structure. As the days get longer the sleeper houses will report some walleyes being caught even before and after daylight hours.”
Lake of the Woods has stained water and isn’t known for its night bite as fish normally feed during daylight hours. This time of year as the days get longer and the angle of the sun is different, there are numerous reports of fish being active for a couple of hours of dark both morning and evening from anglers staying in sleeper houses.
The NW Angle
As the northernmost point in the continental U.S., this part of the lake is very different than the basin and western reefs to the south. This is the area where the 14,552 islands of the lake begin. Because of the numerous islands, there is structure everywhere.
“They (the walleyes) always start out real well on the points and shoals, where you would find them in the fall,” explains Jeremy Glessing, ice guide for Flag Island Resort up at the Northwest Angle. “This pattern starts for early ice in December until the end of January or beginning of February. Then we see the fish slide out and scatter over the mud. The majority of their diet shifts to bugs, worms in the mud and baby crayfish. Some walleyes will still slide up on structure during key feeding times both early and late in the day.”
“As March rolls around and the thaw begins, we see the walleyes start to transition back to structure as they did during the early ice period, specifically adjacent to prime spawning areas. March can also be a great time to ice fish as the fish have the feed bag on for the upcoming spawn,” explains Glessing.
Walleyes like other fish are geared towards instincts. The top two are food and reproduction. During the months of December – February, food takes precedent. As March approaches, movement toward spawning areas certainly comes into play.
Having an understanding of why fish are moving, where they typically move to and how they are adapting to their food sources and eventually spawning grounds can lead anglers to better choices in finding winter walleyes and saugers.
Lake of the Woods is called The Walleye Capital of the World. There are a lot of factors that play into this distinction, and certainly one of them is the diversity of the watershed. In one area of the lake, walleyes may be focused on structure primarily feeding on baitfish. At the same time a couple of miles away, there is a great bite in the mud with fish targeting blood worms and other critters who emerge as the winter progresses.
Understanding winter walleye movements is very helpful in ice fishing success. Diversity of habitat, over 65,000 miles of shoreline, a variety of forage, various spawning areas and key tributaries feeding the lake lends itself to many choices. The Lake of the Woods area boasts a strong fishing resort community with fish houses strategically placed taking much of the guesswork out of it. The fact the lake has millions of walleyes and saugers also increases the odds of success. Do you see a fish fry in your future? This winter, consider walleye movements and get out and make some ice fishing memories!