ROOSEVELT, Minn. – The caterpillar tracks on Tim Hill’s transport rig creaked loudly as he departed shore with another load of Lake of the Woods ice anglers.
It was 23 degrees below zero on a sunny, windless Friday afternoon and business was booming. Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort, self-proclaimed as one of the world’s largest ice fishing operators, was welcoming yet another weekend crush of 350 visitors.
Hill, better known as “Wingnut,’’ grabbed the steering wheel with both hands to turn the vehicle’s beefy front skis. “Let’s go fishing!’’ he said.
When the Arnesen family plowed its first ice roads for walleye and sauger anglers more than 40 years ago, the Department of Natural Resources was tracking winter fishing pressure on Minnesota’s portion of Lake of the Woods at fewer than 650,000 hours for the season.
By 2001, winter fishing on the northernmost lake in the contiguous United States soared to 1.2 million hours. Since then, the pressure has exploded to more than 2 million hours, forcing the DNR into a reckoning of the lake’s generous winter bag limit.
South Shore anglers have only two more months to enjoy a long-lived regulation allowing a mixed bag of eight walleyes and saugers. Next season’s take-home allocation will be cut for sustainability reasons to six fish, with no more than four being walleye. That’s an effective cut per bag of two saugers — the walleye’s doppelganger species.
Paul Arnesen, one of many family members who work at the resort 21 miles east of Warroad, said the change shouldn’t hurt business.
“People want good fishing and to catch enough fish for a meal,’’ he said. “Overall the lake is in very good health.’’
Ahead of the curve
DNR Fisheries Supervisor Phil Talmage, based in Baudette, has said that 80 percent of the year-round sauger take along the south shore of Lake of the Woods happens during winter. The harvest has swollen to an average of 405,000 pounds — 60 percent beyond the DNR’s yearly target.
The unprecedented winter fishing pressure also has pushed the annual walleye harvest 10 percent beyond the DNR’s preferred range for sustainability. Still, DNR officials say walleye and sauger populations on the lake aren’t crashing.
Shrinking the winter bag limit and canceling the early walleye harvest on the Rainy River and in Fourmile Bay (starting this April) are new steps meant to keep fisheries managers ahead of the curve in sustaining good catch rates. As always, any walleye measuring between 19.5 inches and 28 inches must be immediately released.
“We are going to be pushing hard to get that information out to people,’’ Talmage said.
Tow-behind wheelhouses — well-appointed campers rigged for ice fishing — have contributed greatly to the surge in winter pressure. But wheelhouses don’t have a place at Arnesen’s. All staff resources are spent ferrying anglers to and from a stable of 150 resort-owned fish houses positioned over a series of reefs miles from shore. It takes a fleet of at least 20 tracked vehicles to handle the load. Heating the shacks requires a weekly delivery of about 2,500 pounds of liquid propane, said Dan Jesser, a former pro wrestler and an ice captain at Arnesen’s.
“Business is bonkers,’’ Paul Arnesen said. “It’s been a good winter.’’
The fishing has been good, too. Pete Barboni, a hockey dad from Cottage Grove, hooked five walleyes and saugers in his first four hours on the ice last weekend. Together, he and I kept a total of eight fish during back-to-back afternoons of jigging within sight of Manitoba. We dangled live minnows in front of bottom-dwelling fish, 28 feet below our heated shack.
The strong bite was our reward for cramming two fishing excursions into a youth hockey trip to nearby Roseau, where our sons played in a PeeWee tournament at Memorial Arena. The boys couldn’t be persuaded to join us, enamored as they were with team activities at the hotel.
For the parents who watched them in our absence, there were fresh-frozen filets of walleye and sauger as gratuity.
Hill said the ice fishing scene on Lake of the Woods is drawing visitors of all kinds, from near and far. Last week’s guests to the resort included Japanese visitors from Shimano, the Osaka-based fishing company.
If this year’s South Shore ice lasts as expected, the final season of the eight-fish walleye/sauger bag limit will linger until mid-April. Where most fish houses in Minnesota must be removed from frozen lakes by March 4 or earlier, the shelters on Lake of the Woods remain in place until April 1. Usually there’s another two weeks of fishing from portables or in the open air.