Some anglers go ice fishing—we were out on a trophy hunt.
Not your typical trophy hunt, however. There would be no killing, at least none intentionally. Trophies would be released, a little tired, but no worse for wear.
Whatever the quarry, it’s true that trophies tend to live in special places that require a little extra work to get to. A specific bay on Lake of the Woods was our destination for this trophy hunt and big pike were our quarry.
The mythical number for pike anglers is the 40-inch mark which roughly works out to being a 20-pound fish. It takes a special body of water and the right tactics to land a pike of that size.
Lake of the Woods is loaded with big fish including probably the highest population of pike over 40-inches in the 48 contiguous states. Although there are plenty of excellent big pike entry points on the American side, our trophy hunting crew decided to cross the border into Canada—Manitoba to be specific.
Only a small portion of massive Lake of the Woods is in Manitoba, most of the lake is in Ontario. The segment in Manitoba is known as Buffalo Bay and we stayed at the beautiful Buffalo Point Resort located right on the lake complete with a marina—a great access point for four-wheelers and snowmobiles.
The group leader for my trip was Bryan “Beef” Sathre of Fathead Guide Service. A national pro-staffer with companies like IceForce, StrikeMaster, MarCum Electronics, Rapala and Otter Outdoors, he has fished Lake of the Woods a ton but usually from the American side.
Also along with the group was seasoned big pike angler Sabin Rasmus who has iced numerous big pike and is equally adamant about releasing every pike as quickly as possible into the waters. “Celebrate the catch with a few photos and then let it go again—there’s nothing cooler than that big tail disappearing back in the hole and the gush of water as it swims off to be caught again someday,” Rasmus said.
Trophy pike can be caught in a variety of ways but it’s tough to beat a solid spread of tip-ups over the selected area. Pike roam the lake in search of easy food, often in the form of dead fish floating just underneath the ice. These pike will kill anything they come across as well but an easy meal is tough for any predator to turn down.
Our bait for the day was a dead minnow right around a foot long that was hooked with two trebles on a quick-strike rig. This “Slew-Dog” rig is a special set-up and the rig of choice for big pike anglers. Northland Tackle also makes a quick-strike rig called the Predator Rig and we used a few of them as well.
Anglers can make their own rig as well so long as the treble hooks are big enough to fit the bait. In our case, foot-long frozen herring with one treble through the head and the other between the dorsal and tail. Large baits tend to deter smaller pike. Once a pike is on the line, it’s important to set the hook during the initial run to ensure a hookset in the mouth rather than deeper in the throat. A mouth hook is what makes a successful release possible.
Connecting the Slew-Dog rig to the tip-up was mason line. The thick white line performs very well in these conditions and doesn’t slice and dice your hand as a big pike burns the line on your fingers as you let it run.
Main base was at the midpoint of a J-shape resembling a decoy spread complete with 12 tip-ups set at various depths below the ice. None of the tip-ups was further than 200 feet away but only the end of the “J” was within 50 feet of home base. It makes for some high-stepping sprints when a flag pops, not to mention plenty of falls when your boot busts through the layer of slush and your other leg takes too big of a step.
On the snow, near each hole, we placed a small black bucket to provide for an easy visual reference. Monitoring a dozen or so tip-ups from sunrise to sunset can be quite exhausting without visual references.
Over two days of hardcore fishing, in cold and blustery conditions, our group found its fair share of trophies. Five of the seven anglers in our group caught the biggest pike of their lifetime and seven pike over 40-inches were caught along with many others just shy of that mark.
When you fish this way, the only fair way to do it is to take turns. We decided who would be first before the first flag ever popped but it’s funny how multiple flags tend to pop all at once, knocking that system out of order. No complaints, however. When two or three flags go in succession and you are running from one hole to the next, it’s the peak of excitement and anticipation. It’s also a great way to warm up! This is cross-training at its finest.
Adding to the thrill was the sheer girth of Sathre’s pike. “It was a very thick fish that just rolled over my hands as I held it—definitely the biggest I’ve ever caught. Best of all, it’s still swimming,” he said.
All the pike our group caught were successfully released, often without time to take photographs. Normally a March trip features warm weather and plenty of opportunities for successful releases and photographs. Not this year with below zero wind chills and temperatures in the teens at best.
Crossing into Canada at the point of entry just north of Warroad was relatively easy and a passport card or book was all it took. Just a few hundred yards past the international border is the turn-off for Buffalo Point Resort. The resort has a wide variety of accommodations for visitors year-round including cabins for sale right on the lake. Check www.buffalopoint.ca for details or visit lakeofthewoodsmn.com for general information on fishing and accommodations on the American side.
Buffalo Point Resort has a full marina that offers access in the winter and a landing in the summer. When not covered in snow, there is a lush 18-hole golf course with the perfect blend of lakeshore and woods.
That said, Canada is under strict price controls on adult beverages so if that’s part of the after-fishing plans, make sure to come fully prepared. Just not over prepared—customs has strict restrictions on how much adult beverage can be brought into the country.
Positioned on a point, Buffalo Point provides visitors with beautiful views of both sunrise and sunset. Being so far north, and relatively away from metropolitan areas, the stars shine brighter and the northern lights glow more colorful.