By Steve Weisman
Some people would think my son and I are nuts to spend four 10-hour days in an 8’ x 12’ ice shack miles from anywhere on Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods Northwest Angle. Just four walls with four ice holes drilled at each end of the shack, and nobody around but the two of us. However, we were literally in seventh heaven! Even with fronts rolling through, ice fishing on the Angle toward the end of January was awesome!
Why the Northwest Angle
I will be the first to admit that great ice fishing options abound in our surrounding states: South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most certainly our state of Iowa. Our choice, though, goes back 12 years, when my son and son-in-law first made their trip to the Northwest Angle, choosing Jake’s Northwest Angle resort as our home base and guide service for the trip. Since that time, my son has been back a total of 13 times. My only trip to the Angle was 10 years ago, when my wife gave me the trip as a retirement present. It was an awesome trip, but other demands kept me from coming back until this year.
Each year Curt has returned during the same time frame and by doing so has developed a good friendship with two other anglers that always visit the Angle at the same time: Bob Switzer and Michael Burris from Kansas City, MO. Their reason for coming up each year is to make connection with guide Big Mike Jenison who, along with owner Paul Colson, handles all of the ice fishing duties from setting up and moving the ice houses to key hotspots, to transporting the anglers each day to their houses and providing all of the minnows needed. Big Mike, you see, also hales from Kansas City and knew Switzer and Burris as youngsters growing up. Fast forward to 2014, and Big Mike is now in his 18th year as a guide for Jake’s.
Enough background…now for the fishing. Lake of the Woods, which is over 70 miles long and wide and contains more than 14,000 islands and 65,000 miles of shoreline, is a walleye fishing mecca often called the “Walleye Capital of the World.” Most of the resorts are located across the southern end of the lake, but they are also extremely busy. The Northwest Angle can be accessed by snowmobile, but it is nearly a 30-mile run. The other option is to obtain a passport and travel through customs from Minnesota into Canada and then to go through customs again as you return into the Angle. To me, however, it’s worth it to be isolated from the world, so to speak. I find the Angle to be the best of the best!
Our four days of fishing included catching 150 walleyes, a few sauger and jumbo perch and one northern pike. That’s pretty darned good action, I would say considering the high and low pressure fronts that blew through on back-to-back days! We averaged over 35 fish a day; however, there are days when 70-80 fish will be caught in a single ice shack. Most of the fish measured 15-19”. We also caught several slot fish in the 20” to 22” range. Finally, Curt caught a 27 1/2” walleye one day and then caught a 28” fish the next day (out of the same hole).
We released most everything except for enough fish for two evening meals (30 fillets for the five of us) at a local restaurant. Curt and I also fixed an “ice shack meal” of walleye fillets on the propane stove/heater! We placed six fillets with butter spread over them in tin foil and added slices of Vidalia onion and salt and pepper. We heated the fish, a couple of small cans of pork ‘n beans and warmed slices of homemade bread on top of the tin foil. “Bon appetite”! We did that for two consecutive days!
Big Mike set us up in an ice shack located near a rock reef that topped off in about 12’ of water, but the shack was off to the side in 17’ of water. “If we set up on top of the reef, you would only get about an hour of fishing in the early morning and late afternoon. By putting the shack in 17’ of water, you will have a chance to catch fish all day.” Sure enough, that is what happened. Certainly, there were lulls, especially during mid-day. For the most part, though, we had action throughout much of the day. We soon found that the walleyes were there and feeding heavily on hatches emerging from the muck. As a matter of fact, many of the walleyes we caught had mud on their bellies! They were also feeding on schools of meandering baitfish.
If we had not had success, Big Mike would have moved us to another house. It is their aim to try to keep anglers on fish as much as possible.
Curt and I each had our own side of the ice shack to fish, so we set up one line with a slip bobber and a plain hook tipped with a lively minnow. We made sure this was within six inches of the bottom. I would guess that 25 percent of our fish came on the slip bobber rigs.
That leaves 75 percent coming through jigging. A major key to our success here was that we each had an FL-22 Vexilar flasher. In that way, we could “see” the mark of the lure as we jigged it up and down and also a mark when a fish came close to the lure. The key was being able to determine the interest of the fish. If a fish became really interested in the bait, the mark would get darker, going from a green color to red, becoming bigger and a deeper red as it “eyeballed” the bait.
For jigging lures, we found that the gold metallic orange Salmo Chubby Darter, Clam’s firetiger Psycho Shad, Northland’s gold Buckshot Rattle Spoon and Northland’s pink/white (glow) Buckshot Rattle Spoon worked the best. We would each choose a different lure to start with to see what the fish were interested in. We also found that after a while, the fish would become neutral to a certain lure, so we would change. Often, that triggered a bite.
We also tipped a minnow head to each of these lures. Our target area was bouncing the lure off the bottom (trying to poof the bottom) and working the lure up at least 6’ off the bottom. Jigging ranged from a sharp upward swing to rip the lure up followed by a free fall back down or maybe a jiggle, jiggle, jiggle back down. Sometimes we would let the lure sit totally still; sometimes we would jiggle it up a few inches and then let it sit. The bottom line: we tried to let the fish tell us what they wanted.
For those who have never done this, it might sound complicated. It all comes down to this: work the lure and watch the Vexilar. By the time you have fished a 10-hour day, you will know what I mean.
A final thought
When the fishing day was done, Big Mike and Paul bring the anglers back to shore. Big Mike, Curt, Michael, Bob and I would then spend the evening swapping fishing lies over a grilled steak or grilled Iowa chop back at the cabin. Twice we hit the road for supper, once at Sportsman’s Lodge on the ice road and once at Jerry’s Restaurant for a feast of our own caught fish! To us, that’s what made each day complete and the reason people keep coming back year after year to the Northwest Angle!
If you are thinking of trying some ice fishing on Lake of the Woods, there are lots of options. My suggestion is to Google Lake of the Woods ice fishing and look at the resorts and guide options. You can also contact Lake of the Woods Tourism at [email protected] or call (800) 382-3474. My contact there is Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.