Digging out, gearing up on Lake of the Woods

The storm that dumped upwards of a foot of snow across vast parts of the region might be good for skiing and snowmobiling, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for lakes that were just setting up with ice safe enough for walking or light vehicles such as snowmobiles and ATVs.

Besides providing a blanket of insulation that hampers additional freezing, the snow puts weight on the ice and forces water up through the cracks that are a natural part of the freeze-up process.

The result is slush, which can make getting around an absolute nightmare.

A lightweight vehicle pulls a rental ice fishing house onto the ice of Lake of the Woods north of Baudette, Minn. (Lake of the Woods Tourism photo)

The impact of all this snow on ice fishing and access remains to be seen, but the early outlook is favorable on Lake of the Woods, which received about a foot of snow from the storm.

I talked to Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, this morning to get the latest word from the big lake. Henry, who was en route to the St. Paul Ice Show that begins Friday, talked to several resort owners and called me back early in the afternoon to say  it’s “all systems go” for this weekend.

The snow no doubt was a detriment, Henry said, but the biggest impact was the extra workload it put on resort employees. Instead of spending the day pulling rental houses onto the ice and setting them up, resorts first were putting a priority on reopening trails on the ice that drifted shut during the storm.

Despite the setback, Henry said resorts still were on track to set up rental houses on the ice as soon as the trails were cleared.

The lake has 8 to 9 inches of ice, Henry said, which now is covered by 6 to 9 inches of snow. The hope, though, is that the wind will clear the worst of the snow from the vast, ice-covered expanse.

Bottom line: Resorts with reservations on the books for this weekend will be ready to roll, Henry said.

“The snow caused a mess in a sense because they’ve got to plow the roads open,” Henry said. “So far, it looks fine and will not impede resorts from pulling houses out at all.”

That’s good news, because I’m heading up to the big lake Friday afternoon for my traditional early ice opener at Ballard’s Resort, and a friend and I will be fishing out of one of their heated rental houses Saturday.

Hopefully, the hot fishing that has characterized the early ice season so far continues.

Traffic on the south shore of Lake of the Woods remains limited to snowmobiles, ATVs and light vehicles such as Geo Trackers, which the resorts use early in the season to transport customers onto the ice in heated trailers.

Temperatures are forecast to dip into the -20 range this weekend, which should help thicken the ice even with the snow covering, Henry said. In the meantime, anglers should stick to the trails, check with area resorts and bait shops for the latest conditions, and avoid taking dumb risks.

Fish and Wildlife Service taking comments on Lake Alice ice fishing proposal

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now taking public comment on a proposal to open Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge to ice fishing.

The comment period on the draft plan began Nov. 12 and continues through Dec. 20. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before the plan translates into anglers being able to fish through the ice on Lake Alice, but it should be welcome news for anglers who’ve been itching to fish the refuge portion of the lake through the ice.

The lake now is connected to several upstream waters in the Devils Lake Basin, and groups such as the Lake Region Anglers Association in Devils Lake have been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to get the proposal to this point.

The portion of Lake Alice within refuge boundaries would remain closed to open-water fishing under the Service’s proposal.

I’ll be doing a story for this Sunday’s Outdoors section with more details on the draft plan, which hopefully will include a timetable for when the feds will open the lake for ice fishing. But in the meantime, the Service’s draft documents are available online here.

Paper copies of the plan also are available at the Devils Lake office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, 221 Second St., N.W.

To comment on the plan, write the Service at the above address or by email at devilslake@fws.gov. Please include “Draft Fishing Plan” in the subject line.



April fishing excursion seemed more like February

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh and shake your head, and that was the case this past weekend when a group of us converged on Devils Lake in hopes of chasing a few tip-up flags for northern pike.

Typically, ice fishing in April on Devils Lake — or any other lake in this part of the world — can an iffy proposition as ice and access conditions deteriorate to the point where they’re no longer safe.

Not this year.

Brad Durick of Grand Forks watches a tip-up set for northern pike Sunday during a weekend pike-fishing excursion on Devils Lake. There would be no flags on this day’s excursion, which was cut short by heavy snow. So much for fishing in April. (Brad Dokken photo)

The conditions we encountered Saturday and Sunday were more like February than April. Nearly a foot of snow on the level covered the lake, fishermen were driving pickups in areas where the plowed access roads allowed them to travel, and the ice was as hard and thick and blue as it would have been in the middle of the winter.

Last year, by comparison, most of the ice was off the lake, and plans for a spring tip-up excursion were scrapped.

During a typical April pike excursion, the snow  is gone, the ice has the consistency of a snow cone and skeins of snow geese pass overhead en route to their arctic breeding grounds.

This year, the only geese we saw were a handful of honkers standing on the ice and looking very much confused by the absence of open water.

The fishing Saturday wasn’t fast and furious, by any means, but we managed to land five pike — more than enough for an evening fish fry — and also missed a handful of other fish that tripped the flags. The temperature was bearable, but far from the shirtsleeve conditions we’ve encountered some years.

The sun poked out briefly Sunday morning but the clouds quickly won out. Even the pike that should be snapping right now were in a weather-driven funk. When heavy snow began to fall early in the afternoon, we decided to reel up the lines and call it a weekend.

At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a repeat of 1996, when four of us ice fished Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota walleye opener.

There wasn’t another boat in sight.