Gregg Hennum isn't worried just yet.
Despite a mild fall, the co-owner of Sportsman's Lodge on Lake of the Woods is hopeful ice soon will be thick enough to safely launch the winter fishing season.
"We're not behind schedule yet," he said. "We tell customers we average around Dec. 10 [to begin ice fishing]. We have five to six inches of ice in Four Mile Bay, and about the same out on the lake."
Said Hennum: "Typically we will move ice houses onto the lake on eight inches of ice, and we don't take any guests out until we have about 10 inches. We don't take any chances -- it's not worth it."
Some anglers on foot have been catching fish.
Temperatures were in single digits last week, and similar sub- freezing temps were forecast this weekend. "With no snow on the lake, that should help make ice pretty quickly," Hennum said. "It's looking like Dec. 14-15 will be a very busy weekend around here."
Lake of the Woods is one of the top ice fishing destinations in the state for several reasons:
• Walleyes -- and saugers -- generally are plentiful.
• The far-north locale means the huge lake has solid ice when other Minnesota lakes might not.
• Dozens of resorts and businesses cater to the tens of thousands of anglers who flock there each winter.
"It's huge -- ice fishing is a busier time than open-water fishing," said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, which represents 58 resorts, lodges and other businesses. "We're probably the largest ice fishing destination in the U.S."
He estimated that more than 1,000 ice fishing houses are available to rent on Lake of the Woods.
Said Hennum: "It's a big deal up here -- better than half our business." When the ice fishing season kicks into gear, "the whole place starts to rock," he said. His resort offers 68 ice fishing rental houses, including 14 that anglers can sleep in overnight, and 14 at Oak Island in the Northwest Angle.
Henry, who also is a fishing guide, said the stained Lake of the Woods waters provide a key benefit to anglers: "We can catch walleyes during banker's hours, which is great for the average angler."
While the recent warm falls and winters are a concern, they might have benefited Lake of the Woods. "When no one else had ice, we did," Henry said.
Anglers should find walleyes this winter. Walleye abundance on the lake declined from 2001 through 2009 because of some poor reproduction, but that trend started to reverse in 2010, the Department of Natural Resources says. Fish produced in 2005 through 2007 -- generally 14 to 18 inches long --will dominate the catch.
Saugers are at near-record levels, too, which also bodes well for winter anglers.
Meanwhile, the walleye bag limit increased on Dec. 1: Now the walleye/sauger aggregate limit is eight (not more than four can be walleyes). Walleyes from 19 1/2 to 28 inches must be immediately released; one over 28 inches can be kept.