ON LAKE OF THE WOODS – Anglers in the lobby of Zippel Bay Resort are checking a map of local ice roads leading to more than 300 fishing spots on this lake bordering Canada.
They want to know where walleyes are biting — and whether the Igloo Bar is for real.
The answer lies nearly 2 miles from shore. That’s where resort owners Nick and Deanna Painovich have situated a full-sized cocktail lounge that has become a calling card for the booming winter tourism trade between Warroad and Baudette.
“We just had to check out the ice bar,” said Lawrence Bryant, 33, a first-time patron from Kansas City, Mo.
He showed pictures of big bass from his home state. But only in Minnesota could he tell fish tales inside a pub on a frozen lake.
Decked out with satellite TV, propane heat, running hot water and hoodie-clad bartenders, the arc-roofed bar also serves soup, sandwiches and pizza. The bottled beer, shots and mixed drinks flow for six nights a week until the ice softens in late March. That’s when tractors haul it back to shore in two pieces.
Couples have been married there and snowmobilers drive miles to use the heated outhouses. And for $5 an hour, you can lift up a section of the tavern’s insulated floor and jig for walleyes from your bar stool.
“If you are looking for something different, this is different,” said Sam Ricker, a veteran Lake of the Woods ice fisherman who sidled up to the bar last week with friends.
The Painoviches spent nearly $100,000 to build the Igloo, an investment funded by a long-running ice fishing boom on the American side of the 1,600-square-mile lake. Nick said most resorts in the area couldn’t afford to keep their places up to date without profits from cold-weather visitors, including an increasing number of snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.
“It’s a vacation that people from other areas have not experienced and it keeps growing,” he said.
Phil Talmage, the Baudette area fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said winter fishing on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods is now twice as popular as in spring, summer and fall put together. Ice anglers now spend more than 2 million hours a season in pursuit of the lake’s walleye, sauger, northern pike, perch and other fish, he said.
Before the year 2000, the ice had never been fished for more than 1 million hours in a single season.
“We’ve seen it expand twofold,” Talmage said.
Igloo bartender Jenny Johnson said business in the bar’s sixth year is as brisk as ever. A lot of first-timers tell her they expected it to be built from ice, but the framing is metal and the shell is fortified with a thick layer of foam insulation. A tilting tin chimney protrudes from one side of the roof and a satellite dish hangs from another. Inside, customers can stand at the bar, sit in the dining room or drop a fishing line through the floor from one of 18 interior wood benches.
“It gets a little crazy in here when someone catches a big one,” Nick Painovich said.
He usually situates the Igloo miles out from shore above a walleye hot spot in the Zippel Bay fish house village. But this season’s warm December and thinner ice prompted him to station it near a sandbar by the shallowest ice holes.
“It’s a lot of work, but it makes us stand out as a resort,” Painovich said.
One day last week, a group of eight snowmobilers traveled by sled from Grand Forks, N.D., to check out the bar. On the menu were pulled-pork sandwiches, cheese soup and pizza. Beer was $3.50 a bottle and the “hot hole” shot of the day was whiskey mixed with cherry liqueur.
“I think it’s ingenious,” said Hugh Etter of Cherry, Minn.
Etter has his own heated fish house on Zippel Bay. When the walls of that place start to feel like they are closing in, he’ll drive to the Igloo to socialize and trade notes on the walleye bite. If he wants to gaze at winter constellations in the night sky, he can stand outside by the bonfire.
That’s what Painovich was counting on when he approached the DNR, the Minnesota Department of Health, the state Department of Labor and Industry and his banker with plans to build the Igloo. At the time, he said, the idea had never been officially presented to state officials and the process took months.
“The health department was a little concerned about this idea taking off across the state,” Painovich said.
Now licensed as a mobile food court, fish house and caterer, the Igloo requires electricity (supplied by a gas generator) to heat food and pressurize hot and cold water. All waste water gets hauled to shore in holding tanks and poured into the resort’s own disposal system.
The main road to the Igloo is wide enough for area planes to land and the bar has hosted weddings, including one where the groom wore white bib overalls and the bride wore a white silk jumpsuit.
“It’s not necessarily about chasing fish every hour of the day,” Painovich said. “People have fun out here.”