BAUDETTE -- Despite trips to Mille Lacs, Gull and several other good walleye lakes, this was a tough walleye-catching winter for me. Wherever I went I was a day late or a day early, fished the east shore when I should have fished the west, didn't have the right color, used fatheads when I should have used shiners and so on.
It was just one of those winters.
So when Gary Moeller at Ballard's Resort on Lake of the Woods invited me to come up for some late-season walleye fishing I didn't hesitate. Moeller reminds anglers that although walleye season is closed on inland lakes it remains open on Lake of the Woods through April 14.
Earlier this winter the walleye bite was great on Lake of the Woods. Limits were caught and some big fish, too. If early season was good maybe late season will be as good or better?
A lone fish house on the vast expanse of Lake of the Woods is framed by the window of a neighboring house, providing a portrait of life as its lived in this part of the north country.
Lake of the Woods has had some great late-season walleye bites, as this account from Joe Fellegy's "Classic Minnesota Fishing Stories" testifies: "A 16-pound, 2-ounce walleye was one of five lunker walleyes landed by Lars Olson of Williams, Minn., through the ice of Lake of the Woods on Feb. 16, 1959. Their total weight was 73 pounds, 3 ounces on a scale at U.S. Customs headquarters in Baudette."
That's five walleyes weighing an average of 14 pounds, 6 ounces apiece! Sure, it's no longer 1959, but 14-pound walleyes still roam Lake of the Woods. In December a 12-pound, 12-ounce brute was pulled from a hole in one of Ballard's rentals, Moeller said.
On the morning of my arrival the conversation at the breakfast table at Ballard's centered on a cold snap that would keep the temperature below zero all day. A cold snap can shut down winter fishing as quickly as it shuts down summer fishing.
I went to the front desk, where Moeller was checking in new arrivals. After they trundled off with their gear I asked him how fishing had been. He said the bite had varied quite a bit from day to day and that many of the nicer walleyes were being caught about 10 feet off the bottom.
A Ballard's Bombardier driver happened to stop by the house just in time to help a customer un-hook a 17-inch walleye. Each morning the staff makes sure all houses are warmed, holes are ice-free and minnows are available. (Dispatch Photos by Vince Meyer)
Suspended walleyes are a new phenomenon on Lake of the Woods. I first heard about it three years ago during a PWT tournament here. At that time Scott Fairbairn, the pro who won the tournament, theorized that the suspended walleyes were fish that had fed on shallow reefs and then slid back out over deeper water, where they remained until their bladders adjusted and they could descend to their customary bottom haunts.
A plausible theory, but is this phenomenon new? Or have walleyes always suspended on Lake of the Woods and been found only in recent years by sonar-equipped fishermen?
"Another theory," Moeller said, "is that the lake has a really strong population of walleyes right now and that leads to more competition for baitfish. If those baitfish are suspended than some of the walleyes will feed higher. The lake also has had better water clarity recently. Water levels have been stable from fall through winter and that makes it clearer than normal. If you're fishing six feet off the bottom the walleyes on the bottom can see your bait and come up and hit it.
"Traditionally on Lake of the Woods you fish on the bottom, day in and day out, 365 days per year. There was a belief that suspended fish weren't active feeders. But if you zero in on those walleyes and get your bait in front of their face it triggers a bite. This winter that definitely was the case. It will be interesting to see if it carries over to next winter."
Nice walleyes like this are why thousands of anglers journey to Lake of the Woods each year. When the fish comes through the ice at the end of a long Minnesota winter, it's especially appreciated.
Whatever the reason for the suspended walleyes, I decided I would set one line for the middle of the water column and the other for the bottom, which isn't bad strategy at any time or place.
Cold but good first day
After a 9-mile mile ride on a Bombardier track vehicle I was dropped off at House No. 18, located over 34 feet of water in the middle of Big Traverse Bay. I opened the door and was greeted by a generous wave of heat -- most welcome on a cold February morning. But after a few minutes in the house I had removed my hat and parka and adjusted the thermostat downward, where it remained all day despite a bitter north wind that blew unfettered across the lake.
The holes were ready to go but for some minor ice skimming. In a coffee can I found what appeared to be about a week's worth of fathead minnows. Fearing that many minnows wouldn't live long in a 2-pound coffee can, I dumped them into a 5-gallon pail and added fresh water. Minutes later I noticed "Fish House Rules" posted on the wall. One rule read: "Do not put minnows into fish pail. They will stay alive in can." Oh well.....
Sunrise over the Rainy River means the start of another day of ice fishing on nearby Lake of the Woods. In a matter of minutes the photo would have included a line of Bombardier track vehicles, transporting anglers to the flats on Big Traverse Bay.
I baited a Lindy/Little Joe Flyer and a Kastmaster jigging spoon and got down to fishing. Before long I concluded that I like having an 8 x 12 fish house to myself. Never before have I had eight indoor holes to choose from. When I was tired of staring at one hole I moved my line to another hole. By the end of the day I had fished all eight holes.
Ice fishing gurus preach the necessity of keeping your baits moving and trying different spots. In summer if you moved your line three feet it hardly would be considered trying another spot, but ice fishing is different. How many times have you seen one ice hole produce fish after fish while a hole three feet away produces nothing? Having multiple holes is similar to having multiple deer stands. OK, maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea.
I also decided that as much as I enjoy looking over swank, well-appointed fish houses, such as the kind you see at the Ice Fishing Show in St. Paul, no-frills houses are best. It's no big deal if you kick over a beverage or a cigar ash falls to the floor.
At 9:15 a.m., about 45 minutes after I started fishing, I caught a tiny sauger on the jigging spoon. Over the next six hours the fish bit at a slow but steady rate. Most were small walleyes and sauger. At 11:15 a.m. I caught what might be the biggest perch of my life -- a plump 12-incher that fought like a 2-pound walleye. Later, I caught a 13-inch sauger and a 17-inch walleye. With those three species in the bag it could mean only one thing: My next fish would be an eelpout.
Yet the dreaded pout never bit. In fact the only pout I saw the entire trip was a long-dead, frozen specimen that had been discarded on the ice. Larry Sorenson, the Bombardier driver, stopped by and said there had been a week earlier this winter when fishermen caught an incredible number of pout. For once I was glad to have missed the bite.
By quitting time I had a combined bag of seven walleye, sauger and perch. Back at the resort I learned that most fishermen had had luck, though one man had caught a 23-inch walleye and someone else reported that a 27-incher had been caught. Everyone was optimistic about how their day had ended and was looking forward to better fishing the next day.
Action picks up on second day
The next morning I was moved to House 9, which was identical to House 18 except for two large picture windows on opposite walls. A nice touch, and if I ever build a permanent fish house I will install two windows like those.
I stuck with the Lindy Flyer in chartreuse and orange but opted for a gold Swedish Pimple as my jigging spoon. Both caught fish. At 11:40 a.m. the Flyer produced a 20-inch walleye, my biggest of the winter. I hoped another similar fish would bite soon, but the action slowed and I made good on a pledge to visit two newspaper reporters from Winnipeg, who were fishing next door. The two Canadians were fishing this half of Lake of the Woods for the first time and were enjoying themselves. "We needed a Southern vacation," quipped Paul Pichichyn, the Winnipeg Free Press' outdoors writer.
I stayed for only an hour, as visions of another 20-inch walleye enticed me to return to my house. At 2:20 p.m. another fish hit the Flyer. It made several good runs, convincing me it was a 5-pound walleye. But when I got it up the hole -- no easy feat when ice is three-and-a half feet thick -- it turned out to be a feisty 19-incher. Lake rules allow just one walleye per day over 19.5 inches, so this fish was keepable by a mere half-inch. Into the pail it went.
When I left for home I had a package containing five walleyes, three sauger and three perch, all expertly cleaned and wrapped by the staff at Ballard's. With the inland walleye opener still more than two months away, the fish would make a much-appreciated late-winter meal.
Ballard's Resort has all you need to enjoy late-winter ice fishing, including sleeper houses if you like to stay on the ice and roomy cabins if you prefer a hot shower. Phone (800) 776-2675 and ask for Gary Moeller.
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