BAUDETTE — This ice-fishing season, it has seemed very much like a foreign land.
Yes, Lake of the Woods sometimes feels far away, far removed. And, depending on your whereabouts on the American side, a foreign land is just a short snowmobile ride away. But this unusual winter, it’s the fishing conditions that just might seem foreign to those on the outside. The ice is extra thick and extra healthy, and so are the fish. And the fish numbers.
That this is already being considered one of the best ice fishing seasons in many, many years at Lake of the Woods is saying something: The tourism bureau here has long touted Lake of the Woods as the “Walleye capital of the world,” and not a whole lot of folks would refute that — at least not those who fish the lake at all.
While the Brainerd area has its fair share of good walleye lakes, including Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods has always been a big draw for area anglers. And, with sketchy ice conditions in the Brainerd lakes area most of the winter and a walleye — and sauger — bite for the ages at Lake of the Woods, more and more anglers seem to be heading that way; this winter, fishing talk among the Brainerd area locals often turns to that Lake of the Woods bite.
And the timing couldn’t be better for Lake of the Woods. About three months ago, its tourism bureau hired Joe Henry as executive director in an effort to take the walleye fishing mecca to the next level — and not just as a walleye fishing mecca.
At Sportsman’s Lodge, a classic Lake of the Woods resort on the Rainy River and one of 53 area resorts, a new and very modern villa rises above the rustic cabins that line the river. It was completed approximately three months ago — at about the same time Henry was hired.
Coincidence? Yes. But these two new additions to the Lake of the Woods community also are very much intertwined.
According to Henry, the villa at Sportsman’s was built to potentially attract a different clientele to the resort and, ultimately, the lake. While Henry knows walleye fishing — and fishing in general — is king at Lake of the Woods, there is a hope that the community can attract, say, families or groups in search of upscale accommodations. This new two-level, five-bedroom, four-bath villa that sleeps up to 20 is all that.
The hope, too, is that Henry can help draw folks to an area that also is known for hunting, snowmobiling, boating in the summer and includes many areas of interest, including a gem of a state park (Zippel Bay).
“People like a clean place to stay. They want some of the nicer things, even though they’re at Lake of the Woods,” Henry said of offering options beyond those for the many fishermen who are more focused on walleyes than accommodations and the like. “Zippel Bay Resort kind of started a trend here (of upscale accommodations with its luxury cabins in recent years).
“Brainerd does a good job of attracting the whole family. We’re working on that. But most people come up to fish.”
Henry keeps his office in his hometown of St. Cloud to have a strong presence from central Minnesota south to the Twin Cities and beyond. He said he gets to Lake of the Woods about once every three weeks; he was there most of this past week, fishing with a crew that included top professional walleye fishermen Mike Gofron and Mark Brumbaugh, AIM Pro Walleye Series president/CEO Joe Baron and Jim Kalkofen of Baxter, a former executive director for the Professional Walleye Trail.
Henry, too, has fished professionally, and that’s part of the reason they all were here: An AIM tournament is coming to Lake of the Woods in August and Gofron and Brumbaugh plan to participate. The two also are planning a sort of ice fishing adventure on the lake next winter in which they hope to take 25 to 30 anglers out on the ice. They’ve done it in the past in Michigan, Brumbaugh said, adding that Lake of the Woods sets up nicely for such an event. Henry is planning a community-wide celebration around the AIM tournament because, while he wants to bring more people to the area, he wants to embrace the folks who call the area home, too.
But, of course, with an eye down the road, too. How far down the road remains to be seen.
“We want to know what works so as to reach the demographics that haven’t been reached,” said Henry, 44, who has fished Lake of the Woods for about the last 20 years and knows it well and has a Coast Guard charter captain’s license, all of which will come in handy in these parts.
Henry also said the tourism bureau is looking to tap into the North Dakota oil boom, saying many of the workers there are younger, single men who are making good money, typically working long stretches, then getting a good chunk of time off. Would they make the long haul to Lake of the Woods? Henry thinks they might.
“How far will people travel? How far can we push it? People from Nebraska are used to traveling a long way. Will they come here? How about people from Kansas? Missouri?”
And while Henry hopes to turn people on to all the area has to offer, he knows fishing — and walleye fishing in particular — will always be the ultimate draw.
“Why fight city hall? It’s why people come to Lake of the Woods — to pound the walleyes.”
And that they can do so for six weeks longer than in the Brainerd lakes area, where the season ends at the end of the month, is a huge bonus. And as the ice fishing season is much more popular than the open-water season at Lake of the Woods, Henry said, and because of the frenzied walleye bite this winter, expect the party to last to the very end.
“How many people know that you can catch walleyes here until April 15?” Henry asked, rhetorically. “I’ve been here ice fishing (in April in past years) and boats have come buzzing past me. It’s wild.”
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.