The bite’s on on Lake of the Woods

To say ice fishing is off to a hot start on Lake of the Woods would be putting it mildly.

I made my annual first-ice excursion to Ballard’s Resort on Saturday, and while the morning temperature flirted with 30 below zero, it didn’t seem to have any impact on the fish.

“They’re crushing them,” Nick Anthony of Ballard’s Resort told us Friday night upon our arrival. Catches of 100-plus fish per house had been the norm, Anthony said.

Many of the resorts along the south shore of Lake of the Woods were just beginning to get their rental houses set up on Saturday, but the fish house city will continue to grow in the coming days. (Brad Dokken photo)

Getting out of bed Saturday morning wasn’t a problem, and we started the day in one of the resort’s heated rental houses set atop about 20 feet of water north of Pine Island. Saugers dominated the catch by a margin of about 2 to 1. There are lots of small fish in the system right now — both saugers and walleyes — but finding fish for the bucket wasn’t a problem.

We also released a 22-inch walleye and another that was 19¾ inches, putting it in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot of fish that have to be released.

The fish were still biting when resort guides Bryan Baron and Nick Dunn moved us into a shallower house to take advantage of a late-afternoon walleye bite. At 17 feet, it wasn’t much shallower, but the walleyes attacked our jigs as soon as we dropped our lines down the holes shortly after 2:30 p.m. A couple of the day’s larger saugers also came from the shallower house.

This 19 3/4-inch walleye was in the 19 1/2- to 28-inch protected slot for Lake of the Woods and was released after a quick photo.

Fishing in the heated comfort of the resort’s rental houses, two of us easily caught 100 fish, and the tally likely would have been even higher if we’d kept count.

We reluctantly called it a day about 4:30 p.m. and headed back to shore in one of the heated trailers all of the resorts on Lake of the Woods use to shuttle customers onto the ice early in the year. Early ice on Lake of the Woods has to have the largest collection of Geo Trackers, Suzuki Samurais and similar small four-wheel drives of anywhere in the state.

There’s a fair bit of snow on the lake, and the small vehicles got a good workout pulling the trailers across the ice. Still, the ice conditions were good, with a solid 9 to 10 inches, and the slush was manageable.

If the subzero temperatures of the past few days continue, it won’t be long before the resorts up there plow ice roads for larger vehicles or begin using Bombardiers or similar tracked vehicles to shuttle people onto the ice. Many of the resorts were just beginning to get their houses set up Saturday, and Ballard’s had about a dozen of its 43-house fleet in action.

That number will continue to grow during the next few days as the winter season kicks into high gear.

Water clarity, always a concern for anglers on Lake of the Woods early in the season, is excellent. I had my best fishing using a glow red and gold “Stop Sign” jigging spoon along with a purple- and gold-colored Chubby Darter on my jigging line and a glow pink-and-white colored Gem-N-Eye jig on my setline.

I got lucky late in the day when my bobber slowly began to sink in the way bobbers do when a walleye is at the other end of the line. I set the hook, felt the weight and the line went slack.

The line had snapped, thanks to a nick, and my Gem-N-Eye — the only one of that color I had with me — was gone.

Disappointed at losing one of my favorite ice fishing jigs, I was searching for a replacement when my fishing partner set the hook on a walleye that rose up and from the bottom and absolutely smashed his jig.

He landed the fish, a chunky walleye measuring 18 inches, and was freeing his lure when he noticed another jig in the fish’s mouth.

Sure enough, it was the pink-and-white Gem-N-Eye I’d lost only a couple of minutes earlier.

Saturday’s ice fishing debut sets the bar pretty high for the rest of the season, but there’s no reason to expect the fast action won’t continue.

John Poepl of Hastings, Minn., released this 30-inch, 12-pound walleye Sunday while fishing out of Ballard’s Resort on Lake of the Woods. (Photo courtesy of Ballard’s Resort)

We only fished Saturday, but Sunday was just as good, if not better. Gary Moeller of Ballard’s said a solo fisherman quit counting Sunday afternoon after he’d passed the 150-fish mark. Another fisherman, John Poepl of Hastings, Minn., released a 30-inch behemoth that tipped the scales at 12 pounds.

I’m sure there were plenty of other trophy-sized walleyes pulled through the holes this past weekend, as well.

I’ll have a complete story about our adventure in Sunday’s Outdoors section. But in the meantime, if you’re planning a trip to Lake of the Woods, I’d suggest getting up there ASAP.

The bite’s on!

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