PIKE BAY LAKE, CASS LAKE, MN--The shoreline ice around most northern Minnesota lakes has deteriorated beyond the bounds of being walkable but a shallow sandbar provided myself and two fellow anglers the opportunity to have some cautiously safe fun this fishing opener.
In 30-plus years of fishing the mythical Minnesota walleye opener, I can safely say I've never seen ice on my favorite lakes this late in the season. It's been close a few years but never like this and, according to the record books, only a time or two like this in the last century. "I can remember there being ice up here in 1996 but that's about it," said Bryan "Beef" Sathre of Fathead Guide Service in Bemidji and Cass Lake. "The old-timers up here tell me that the last time it was like this was back in 1950, so this is probably a once in a lifetime sort of experience," he added.
Armed with tow ropes, extra floatation and wearing life jackets, Sathre, another friend and I ventured out onto a shallow sand bar along the shore of Pike Bay Lake near Cass Lake Minnesota. The edge of the ice was 8-inches thick and we found ice as thick as 14-inches. The depth of the water we were over never exceeded 5 feet deep and we were well dressed in case something dramatic took place.
We had to drill holes using an ice auger when we weren't along the edge of the ice. There were plenty of small to medium sized perch all over the shelf where we were fishing and the edge of the ice was quite stable, once you broke off a few feet of "honey-combed" ice. How did we get on the ice? The water was so shallow that we just stepped up onto it.
A photograph I posted on Facebook went viral around mid-day Saturday with plenty of comments from people both on the positive and negative aspects of our journey. For one thing, all three of us are very cautious individuals who are otherwise very responsible members of society. We didn't venture into anything where we didn't have extra safety measures in place. There were plenty of opportunities for being stupid but we stayed over water shallower than our height and we didn't venture past a small presure ridge that prevented us from the spot we had selected to fish.
Point being, if we were out there with the primary purpose to fish, we would not have been able to access the locations we wanted to. Just being able to say we fished through the ice on fishing opener was the experience onto itself. I'm fairly certain that whitewater rafters and kayakers take a greater risk than we were that day.
Most comments on Facebook said this was the quintessential Minnesota fishing experience and that's exactly what we were going for when we set out. Those who said it was stupid or irresponsible have every right to say that, but I respectully disagree with them. think it's irresponsible to go in a boat without a life jacket on and check out all the photos of people from this weekend who are without one. Cold water is dangerous whether you are walking through it with insulated waders or in a boat.
None of what we did out there was staged or fake. We weren't sitting on a dock either. That was a solid sheet of ice. It looks crazy but really it was quite tame. The photographs of the two guys with their feet dangling in the water were taken by me, standing about six feet away, on the sandy bottom with waders and a life jacket on.
Ice conditions are rapidly deteriorating and we are fairly certain that the ice we were on early this morning will not be accessible within the next day or two. If you decide to do the same, be sure to take the utmost caution. I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old child and both guys who were with me also have young kids. We left them at home for a good reason. If you decide to do the same as we did, leave the kids at home and remember that you are probably at a greater risk of something happening during your drive to the lake than when you are out there.
Good luck fishing and happy fishing opener 2013!
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.
“We Can Do It!” blares across the top of the famous poster from World War II featuring a woman flexing her arm in the rolled up sleeve of a blue denim work shirt.
Early fall is one of my most favorite times of the year because hunting season is in sight. My only apprehension is that I know my shooting skills have taken a dip from not exercising those skills over the summer.
That summer shooting league I meant to join and those trips to the range I put off suddenly have some urgency to them.
Every time I visit the range I am reminded by how much fun it is just to shoot for recreation. In my opinion, trapshooting, skeet and sporting clays are a much better way to spend money than with golf. I’ve never been much of a golfer anyways, but even the worst day of shooting beats the best day of golf.
Smacking a ball around for a few hours just can’t compete with firing on clay Frisbees flying through the air and exploding into pieces. Besides, away from the gun range I can use those skills while I hunt. Smacking a ball into a hole is hardly a skill outside the golf course.
If you haven’t kept up with your shooting this summer, then this is a great time to find that gun range near your house and get into shape. Bring the shotgun out, buy a case of target load shells, and commit yourself to not hunting until you’ve blown through all of them.
Practicing your shooting is critical for avoiding embarrassing situations like that miss on an “easy” shot. It’s also an essential part of being a true conservationist. It’s a waste of an animal to make a less than lethal shot that can lead to unnecessary suffering. Anti-hunters love inaccurate shooters because they make the sport look bad in the eyes of others.
On a selfish note, being a good shot makes hunting a much more enjoyable experience. Few people feel good lobbing three rounds of steel shot into the lake with nothing to show. At a dollar a shell, on average, those range fees quickly pay for themselves when you pound out a double on three shots.
Not only that, but the impressed applause you receive from the others in your hunting party provides for an added bonus. An inflated sense of self is not to be underrated!
In the past week, I’ve shot two rounds of skeet at the LakeShore Conservation Club near Brainerd and two rounds of five-stand sporting clays at Hunts Point near Pequot Lakes. Total investment of time? Just over an hour. Improvement of confidence for the fall? Tremendous. Cost? For everything from shells to range fees and gas costs, about $100.
My Dad came along with me so that only added to the fun and at the skeet range, my kids hung around near the clubhouse under the watchful eye of their grandmother. A two-year-old and four-year-old are hardly ready to shoot just yet but being around it, seeing it in action and learning gun safety are valuable experiences.
As the calendar hits September, and the opening morning of the early goose season arrives, I’ll definitely be a better shot and have more confidence in my ability to knock down a few feathered cows.
A few more trips to the range are definitely in store. There’s also the need to put a dozen or so rounds through the deer rifle and get the muzzleloader in shape as well. The time it takes is minimal as is the cost, but the payoff and fun are well worth it.
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