The grips of winter are rapidly slipping across the southern two-thirds of the state. This is bad news for ice anglers who have been cheated out of a typical Minnesota winter this year.The good news is that, normally, it takes a lot more than a few warm days to put ice anglers out of commission along the northern edge of Minnesota.
I wouldn’t dare venture out on most lakes in the metro area but there was little concern driving the truck several miles onto Lake of the Woods, specifically Muskeg Bay, this past Saturday morning to do some late season trophy pike fishing.
My group accessed the lake from the beautiful city of Warroad where we stayed at the Patch Motel (named after a strawberry patch). Lake of the Woods is a high-quality fishery with healthy numbers of smallmouth bass, walleye, muskie and northern pike, not to mention plenty of trophies for each of the gamefish species.
I spent the first 30 years of my life never having fished the big lake, but in the last few years I’ve tried to get up there at least once a year. Since time is limited and opportunities must be carefully selected, this late ice bite has to be my favorite.
Minnesota’s Canadian border is the last stand for winter. The ice between Baudette and Warroad is usually the last place to ice fish anywhere in the country.
Targeting big pike
While the walleye and pike seasons are closed on nearly every one of the 10,000 lakes, they are open on Lake of the Woods. Spring is still in the air and the fish are beginning to transition from their winter haunts to their spring spawning grounds.
Big pike are beginning to move towards the river mouths to spawn in the backwaters and wetlands. As they prepare for that rigorous journey, they stage off the mouths of the rivers feeding on the abundant supply of food in the lake as well as in the mud. That’s right, in the mud.
Hibernating frogs take refuge in the mud and are dormant, making for a tasty, pre-spawn morsel that hungry pike are willing to nose through for a meal.
Frogs aren’t the only meal on the menu with plenty of baitfish located throughout the lake. Schools of tuliebee are a pike favorite and many of those are still located throughout the main structure of the lake. A lot of anglers focus on the rivers right now, but many are realizing that some of the biggest pike in the lake are still cruising the mid-lake structures in search of tulibee, the energy bar of the baitfish world.
My guides for the trip were Bryan “Beef” Sathre of Fathead Guide Service and his good friends Tim, Sandy and Sabin Rasmus. The Rasmus family staked a claim on the ice with a sleeper house while Sathre and I were land-lubbers who commuted to the ice Saturday and Sunday from Warroad.
The snow pack on Lake of the Woods was not very high but it was quite difficult to get around anyplace without being on a snowmobile or a plowed road. Our road was maintained by Jon Asp of Jon’s Plowing Service and K&A Hide Away Sleepers who spends his winter keeping a well traveled road open from Swift Ditch almost to the Canadian border.
The pike bite was solid Saturday morning with three fish in the neighborhood of 40-inches hooked and released by 9:30 a.m. A few other fish caught throughout the day were of a smaller size but still fun to catch and impressive nonetheless.
One of their secrets for big pike success is the use of dead baits rather than live minnows. Smelly dead baits with lots of natural oils are their favorites like herring. These deadbaits can be purchased from baitshops and bait dealers who much follow very strict guidelines with regards to packaging and size.
These large baits are affixed to a tip-up using a predator rig featuring a double yoke harness for putting two treble hooks in the bait. A benefit of the larger bait is that most of the pike you hook are still holding it in their mouths by the time you set the hook. This allows for easier hook removal, less time for the pike to be out of the water and an easier release.
Pike of all sizes roam Lake of the Woods from little 12-inch “hammer-handles” all the way up to monster pike beyond 50-inches in length. By most angler’s standards, anything over 30-inches is a high quality pike and anything over 40 is a trophy.
This size-class of pike is a rarity these days throughout the nation which is why it is such a phenomenal fishery. There is a protected slot limit on the lake and any pike between 30 and 40 inches must be immediately released. A needle nose pliers with a wire cutter, jaw spreader and multi-use tool are the essentials for assuring a quick release of these big pike.
Big pike take a long time to grow so anglers are strongly encouraged to release those giants they catch over 40 inches. For those who want a wall mount but don’t want to kill a fish, a cloth tape measure is the best tool. Accurate measurements of the length of the fish and its girth, along with a decent photograph, are enough for taxidermy artists to create a fiberglass replica. These replicas look just as good as a real fish mount and last forever as compared to a mount that can deteriorate over time.
Worth the drive
Lake of the Woods normally retains quality ice throughout the month of March and, in some years, well into April. This winter has been anything but typical and even though there were a solid 30 inches on the lake, the current warm up could make conditions along the shorelines quite slushy.
The best thing is to call ahead and find out what’s going on before venturing up. Just because one of the landings is no longer accessible doesn’t mean all of them are and many resorts provide shuttle service via ice-track machines known as Bombardiers that can go through most anything.
High temperatures for the upcoming week are in the 50s but nighttime lows suggest there will be some refreezing, thereby slowing down the thaw. It takes a lot of heat and sun to knock down three-feet of ice.
Just make sure to pack your sunscreen—that sun is as intense in March as it is in September. When it’s sunny on the ice you can get a burn twice as fast because of the reflection. You won’t need much, just enough for your face. Trust me on this one!
For more information on the Warroad Area contact www.warroad.org or call 800-328-4455. Additional information on the Lake of the Woods area can be found at www.lakeofthewoodsmn.com.