Ice fishing finally getting started on Lake of the Woods

Finally.

In a single word, that probably sums up the mindset of resort owners along the south shore of Lake of the Woods, who are starting their winter fishing season.

Finally.

A Ballard's Resort employee pulls a house onto Lake of the Woods on Monday morning. (Ballard's Resort photo)

A Ballard’s Resort employee pulls a house onto Lake of the Woods on Monday morning. (Ballard’s Resort photo)

I messaged with Gary Moeller of Ballard’s Resort this morning, and he said resort crews are pulling houses onto the ice and getting them set up today and Tuesday and will begin fishing Wednesday.

That’s the latest start on record for the resort, Moeller said. The latest start before this year was Dec. 26, some 25 or so years ago. Moeller said the area north of Pine Island where Ballard’s begins it winter season had 8 inches to 9 inches of ice Monday morning.

Rental fish houses are lined up in front of camp and ready to be pulled onto the ice for the season at Walsh's Bay Store Camp on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods. (Bay Store Camp photo)

Rental fish houses are lined up in front of camp and ready to be pulled onto the ice for the season at Walsh’s Bay Store Camp on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods. (Bay Store Camp photo)

Up at the Northwest Angle, Frank Walsh of Bay Store Camp on Oak Island this morning said he had all of his ice trails marked and hopes to be up and running for the season in the next three days or so. The ice on the trails near Oak Island was 8 inches plus, he said, with about 6 inches off to the side of the trail. The main lake south of Oak, where the bulk of winter fishing in that area occurs, had 5 to 8 inches of ice, Walsh said; locals were flooding an area of thinner ice on the east side of Oak that should be good in a few days, he said.

Some of the resorts in the Northwest Angle are up and running already, and early fishing reports have been favorable.

Fortunately, the heavy snow that’s forecast to hit the Twin Cities and points south today doesn’t extend as far north as Lake of the Woods or other large northern Minnesota lakes because the insulating blanket of white stuff is the last thing the ice needs right now. Snow also weighs down the ice, forcing water up through cracks and creating pockets of slush that can make getting around downright miserable.

At the same time, the subzero temperatures that arrived in the border country none too soon appear to be gone, at least for the next few days. According to the National Weather Service, highs in the mid to high teens are forecast throughout the week, and the only subzero low on the horizon is Wednesday night, when the mercury is expected to dip to 1 below zero.

Given the forecast, I’d look for ice conditions to gradually improve throughout the next week. In the meantime, snowmobiles or ATVs will be the safest modes of travel for do-it-yourself anglers. As always, check with area resorts and bait shops for the most up-to-date conditions, whether your destination is Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake or anywhere else.

Changing seasons

Barely a dusting of snow covers the ground here in Grand Forks, but winter seems to have arrived in full force just a couple of hours away.

I made a trek to the getaway in northwest Minnesota over the weekend and was surprised at the amount of snow I encountered. There seems to be a line that begins somewhere west of Karlstad, Minn., and from that point east, the ground was covered with at least 3 inches of snow on the level — that’s just a rough guess; there could be more — everywhere except plowed fields.

Snow falls Sunday afternoon as ice forms along the shoreline of a northwest Minnesota river. (Brad Dokken photo)

Snow falls Sunday afternoon as ice forms along the shoreline of a northwest Minnesota river. (Brad Dokken photo)

Saturday afternoon, friend and frequent fishing partner Brad Durick of Grand Forks and his 5-year-old son, Braden, joined me for an overnight stay. There was nothing particular on the agenda except a big campfire, but with the amount of snow on the ground, I couldn’t resist the temptation to fire up the snowmobile and take it for a spin.

Braden and I made a couple of laps around a snow-covered field, and I had to laugh when we pulled back into the yard, and Braden exclaimed, “That was the best ride of my life!”

This kid obviously is easy to please.

The mercury again has risen back above freezing — at least during the day — but the abrupt cooldown that took place last week has resulted in a drastic change to the countryside, even in areas where snow hasn’t fallen. Wetlands are frozen, ice is forming along the edges of rivers across the region and it won’t be long, at this rate, before anglers begin taking the first tentative steps on the hard water of smaller lakes.

Anglers who are especially brave may have tried walking out in a few places already, though it’s not something I would recommend.

Nature’s calendar is behind schedule compared with last year, when cold temperatures arrived unusually early. Last year, we ventured onto frozen Lake Laretta near Michigan, N.D., before Thanksgiving and found 10 inches of solid ice.

This year, I don’t anticipate getting out on the ice for at least another week, and that’s fine by me.

I’m not a big fan of winter driving, especially when it means traveling icy roads, but I do hope this winter brings more snow than last year. If we’re going to have winter — and that’s inevitable here in the Northland — we might as well have enough snow to enjoy snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, which is one of my favorite forms of winter exercise.

Despite its early arrival, last winter was a disappointment for everything but ice fishing.

This year’s extended fall no doubt was a treat, but I’m ready for winter. About as ready as I can be, at least.

Sharptails provide winter photo opps

The cold weather that has descended with a vengeance the past few days has wildlife scrambling to consume enough calories to keep warm.

That can present some great opportunities for wildlife watchers.

A sharp-tailed grouse feeds on frozen berries in the yard of Gary and Phyllis Lund, who live near Roseau, Minn.

Gary and Phyllis Lund of rural Roseau, Minn., have sent me several photos the past couple of days of sharp-tailed grouse in their backyard — and sometimes right on their deck.

The prairie grouse, which can be notoriously skittish, don’t seem to mind the human company and have been feeding on frozen high-bush cranberries and other foodstuffs that have been set out for the birds.

This sharptail definitely rules the roost.

Gary Lund said the photos have been taken out the house windows, anywhere from 50 feet to farther out, using a Pentax with a 12- to 48-mm zoom lens. They’re fun shots that are worth sharing.

A plump sharptail roosts on the deck of Gary and Phyllis Lund’s resident near Roseau, Minn., on a cold Tuesday morning.

It’s not common for the sharptails to perch on the deck.

“We’ve had them land on top of our other bird feeder,” as well, Lund writes. “Quite comical.”

Roseau and other parts of northwest Minnesota are situated in a unique region between the prairie and boreal forest, which provides the opportunity to see not only prairie grouse such as sharptails, but woodland species such as ruffed grouse and spruce grouse, as well. The abundant snow that’s fallen to date is a boon for all three species, which burrow into the snow to escape the cold. All three are able to withstand cold northern winters providing they’ve got enough food and places to roost. The sharptails obviously have found the Lunds’ yard to their liking.