Last crack at hard-water 2017 on the amazing Lake of the Woods

Lake of the Woods produced a mess of fish for the author and his companions on Tuesday, and representatives of the many species caught posed for this image. (Rob Drieslein photos/video)

For years, I’ve wanted to head north after the inland waters winter walleye closure and ice fish on Lake of the Woods. This week, “Tackle” Terry Tuma and I had that opportunity and fished the big lake out of Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort along with the crew from Clam Outdoors and Vexilar.

Joe Henry from Lake of the Woods Tourism joined Terry and I on Monday for a day inside a hard-sided house over some productive structure off the lake’s south side. Tim “Wingnut” Hills – a former U.S. Air Force mechanic and Desert Storm veteran who now guides on LotWs – found us a productive reef.

We caught a mixed bag of sauger, walleyes, a few tullibee, and the highlight of my day: a personal best jumbo perch that measured 14 inches.

leech flutter spoon in green and gold began producing for me Monday morning, and it just kept producing for me the entire two days. I found the fish, especially on Tuesday, wanted meat, so I attached the biggest fathead minnow I could find. (Don’t you just love the lively live bait of a cold Minnesota winter?) Hooked it right behind the dorsal fin every time while “T3” experimented with minnow heads and swapped lures out more regularly.

Using a leech flutter spoon, the author nabbed this thick, 14-inch perch on Lake of the Woods earlier this week.

In tandem with a Vexilar FL-28, fishing was deadly. If you haven’t ice fished with a quality sonar, what are you waiting for? Fishing with Paul Smith on Tuesday, he noted how much more engaging a Vexilar makes the hard-water experience. Quite simply, it’s just more fun when you know fish are in the vicinity. A mark appears about your lure, and you can reel up and work it. The whole experience is so different from how I grew up ice fishing – dropping a line and wondering for hours if any fish had even sniffed my bait.

In addition to jumbo perch, and healthy walleyes and sauger, several large schools of tullibees moved under our shelters. Some were so large that at first glance I figured they must be whitefish.

Though I’ve visited Lake of the Woods before, it was my first trip to Arnesen’s. A former commercial walleye operation that successfully converted to sport fishing after the mid-1980s, Arnesen’s must be one of the largest ice-fishing operation in the world. The operation must own the largest fleet of old Geo Trackers in the world. Equipped with chains, the small, four-cylinder 4WDs perform remarkably well for hauling permanent ice shacks on the vast lake.

“Tackle” Terry Tuma switched up his bait-and-lure combinations frequently, and caught several healthy walleyes on the border water this week.

An international body of water, Lake of the Woods touches Minnesota and two Canadian provinces. The 36th largest lake on the planet has 65,000 miles of shoreline and 14,552 islands. I’ve now fished the lake over ice and soft water, and I understand why many of my outdoors writing friends keep returning: This is a remarkably consistent fishery.

We caught five species of fish in two days and probably would’ve caught northern pike, too, if we’d set some tip-ups. I recorded my personal bests with a 14-inch yellow perch on Monday and a charismatic 6-plus-pound burbot on Tuesday.

As the Rainy River opens (just a couple miles east of Baudette as of Thursday) and increasingly flows into the lake, resorts near the river mouth have called their ice fishing for the season. Farther west, Arnesen’s enjoys some bonus days and has the equipment to handle hard-water anglers till the end of April. We were drilling through three feet of ice, and the lake probably was building ice on Tuesday.

The crew caught a few fat and sassy burbot (or eelpout) on Lake of the Woods this week. Some of the freshwater cod became fillets, or anglers returned the rest to the water.

Monday night, in fact, walking back from the main lodge to our cabin, “Tackle” and I walked into a major weather event. A blizzard rolled across the lake, and “T3” and I marched into the teeth of it. “That’s what the end of the world is going to look like,” I quipped to “T3” as we hustled to our lodging. Expecting a potentially tough day of fishing after the front rolled through, we instead found ourselves pleasantly surprised with gorgeous weather and steady action all day.

In the Twin Cities, where we watched ice fishing end weeks ago, it’s easy to forget that quality hard water exists for the entire month of March within driving distance. Most LotWs resort operators see heavy bookings for December, January, and February, but March quiets down slightly because most Minnesotans erroneously think hard-water fishing has ended. Ironically, they’re missing a very solid sportfish bite on this amazing lake. Thanks to the full-service operations on this incredible water body, anyone of any fishing experience can enjoy solid success on LotWs. Consider it in 2018. I’ll be back for sure.

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