At this time a year ago, the track-driven Bombardiers owned by resorts north of Baudette were busy shuttling ice anglers to and from the heated confines of fishing shacks on the American side of Lake of the Woods.
For winter walleyes and saugers, it’s the ice fishing capital of Minnesota, and Gregg Hennum of Sportsman’s Lodges is reassuring his customers that it won’t be long now for another season. But as of now, the main lake, larger bays and Rainy River are still shimmering with open water.
“It’s been 15 years since we’ve seen a delay like this,’’ Hennum said. “The water is so ready to freeze. We just need that little push.’’
In the Twin Cities this weekend, enthusiasts won’t have to wait for the season’s first taste of ice fishing. Some 23,000 people are expected to attend the 23rd annual St. Paul Ice Fishing & Winter Sports Show at RiverCentre. The show opened Friday and runs until 5 p.m. Sunday. Show promoter Ryan Reinke said it’s by far the largest ice fishing convention in the United States.
Some 200 vendors will display everything from wheeled, “drop-down’’ fish houses priced as high as $25,000 to wireless, remote-controlled underwater cameras to a new product called the “Skinny Dipper,’’ a long-stemmed plastic water scooper (not a slush remover) that refreshes bait buckets, doubles as a fish-measuring board and triples as a beverage chiller.
“No more getting down on your hands and knees with a pop can or your mother-in-law’s Tupperware to get cold water,’’ said entrepreneur Steve Hall, an Aitken native who traveled to St Paul from his home in Tennessee to be a first-time vendor.
“People want to see what’s new, even if it’s stuff that’s not proven yet,’’ said Dave Genz, one of Minnesota’s premier ice anglers.
Genz will host ice fishing talks and give pan fishing demonstrations, using his snowmobile as a bench. He’s a believer in tungsten steel jigs that sink faster than traditional lead jigs. His most fundamental tip for anglers stationed in overnight shanties is to make sure you’re fishing at dawn and dusk. Those are the golden hours for fish movement.
But Genz himself prefers the mobility of fold-up shelters that he drags from spot to spot behind his snowmobile. “Otherwise, it’s like fishing from your dock,’’ he said.
Genz said that while mild temperatures will delay the all-out, statewide ice fishing season this year, smallish lakes and shallow bays in the northern third of Minnesota already are dotted with devotees of the sport. He also predicted a bigger year than normal for Lake Osakis, in west-central Minnesota, because of walleye restrictions on Mille Lacs.
“I just finished four days of ice fishing near Park Rapids,’’ said Genz, who lives in the St. Cloud area.
In central Minnesota, where Gov. Mark Dayton has assured a limited winter walleye season on Lake Mille Lacs, the big lake might not freeze for several more weeks. Smaller lakes in the Mille Lacs region are usually iced over by now, but the National Weather Service temperature outlook leans significantly toward above-normal temperatures throughout December.
In the far north, Hennum is predicting fishable ice on Lake of the Woods by mid-December. Once the surface hardens, overnight temperatures can add an inch of ice thickness per day. He said statewide interest in the activity has grown. At Sportsman’s, for example, Hennum has been able to add new facilities, including seven new “villas’’ that have attracted more families and couples to the experience.
You can rent ice houses to sleep in, or rest in the resorts. eat breakfast in their restaurants and catch a ride to a daytime ice house that gets moved at least once a week to areas where the fish are biting best.
“We’ll go out on the ice 20 miles if we have to,’’ Hennum said.
Lake of the Woods is known for its walleye-fishing bankers’ hours because the bite lasts throughout the day. It’s a tradition that has nurtured yearly throngs of corporate outings hosted by the border lake’s resorts.
Joe Henry, executive director of the nonprofit Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, said winter fishing brings more tourism dollars to Lake of Woods County than summer fishing. For one thing, he said, the season typically lasts through the end of March, longer than anywhere else in the state.
Henry estimated that ice anglers bring more than $10 million a year into the local economy, and business is growing. Over the past six years, the tourism bureau has tracked a 25 percent increase in ice fishing business, Henry said.
“We can cater to someone who doesn’t ice fish at all,’’ Henry said. “The fishing is great and we’re always going to have thicker ice.’’