(All photos courtesy of Lake of the Woods Tourism)

This Isn't Your Grandfather's Ice Fishing

Barb Carey lives for ice fishing. But she wasn’t always so enthused. One winter day when she was young, her dad brought her to a VFW-sponsored ice-fishing tournament. She was cold and bored. At least she won a prize for the smallest fish.

Those were the days of wet woolen mittens and layers of hooded sweatshirts and of standing around in rubber boots and braving a brisk wind, often for hours, without much happening—good old-fashioned Midwestern stoicism.

“Technology has changed everything,” Carey says. “The sport is nothing like it used to be.”

Warm, windproof, high-performance suits that keep a person afloat, combined with portable life rafts, have virtually eliminated the fear of freezing—or drowning, should a thin patch of ice break. Electric ice augers as light as a dozen pounds have solved the problem of drilling holes, especially for youngsters. Quiet all-terrain vehicles and snow machines whisk anglers over the ice. Cell phones offer instant location information and safety. Marine units provide a view into the depths and the ability to sight moving fish.

Carey, who lives in Wisconsin, is a U.S. Coast Guard–certified captain. She cohosts the popular radio show The Woman Angler. In 2015, she started the Women Ice Angler Project, an annual event that combines camping with ice fishing. It will next be held on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, from Jan. 29 to Feb. 2, 2020. 

Mixing camping with ice fishing is something that anglers have been working toward for years, Carey explains, and it is now possible using mobile equipment and high-end fish houses. “We will be living on the ice for several days,” she says. 

Carey acknowledges that technological advances—including the introduction of nearly invisible lines and a plethora of deadly tungsten jigs and other soft-plastic lures that would have flabbergasted old-timers—have made the fish vulnerable. Public agencies responsible for stewardship of fishery resources have responded by introducing selective harvest and fostering a catch-and-release ethic.

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Carey describes the growing popularity of ice fishing as a destination adventure, with anglers traveling distances on species-specific quests: to urban Milwaukee Harbor in Lake Michigan for giant brown trout; to Lake Winnipeg in Canada for huge “greenback” walleyes; and to Lake Gogebic, the largest inland natural lake in Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula, for jumbo yellow perch the locals call “teeter pigs.” 

And then there’s Lake of the Woods, which many avid ice fishers place in a class of its own.  

“We call it the Walleye Capital of the World,” says Joe Henry, the director of tourism for the northern Minnesota shore of the 68-mile-long lake, which laps briefly on Manitoba to the west and reaches deeply into Ontario to the north. As the farthest-north lake in the contiguous U.S., Lake of the Woods gets the earliest ice—and an extra month of fishing because of neighboring Canada’s season, which extends through March. More than two million anglers take to the ice here annually.

Henry points out that, contrary to the general perception of ice fishing being a deep-freeze sport, it’s actually warmer—and more pleasant—on the ice on a typical day from December through March than it is in an open boat bouncing around in the wind and waves during other months.

“You stay in one of our full-season resorts,” he explains. “After a hearty north-woods breakfast in the morning, you take 10 steps outside into the comfort of a heated ice chariot.” Miles out, you arrive at your fish house, heated by propane to 70 degrees. Snacks, drinks, and tackle are waiting and the holes are already drilled. After a day of fishing, the ride takes you back to the resort, with or without your catch, just in time for cocktail hour.

If a do-it-yourself (although still hardly roughing it) approach is more your style, you can rent a fish house by the day (some have bunk beds and stoves) and drive your pickup as far as 20 miles across the ice on a three- to four-lane highway maintained by the resorts. “Even in blowing snow,” Henry says, “you still have two lanes open.”

When Lake of the Woods is covered in 15 inches of hard ice (which it normally is well before Christmas), Zippel Bay Resort owners Nick and Deana Painovich tow a full-service Igloo Bar in two pieces three miles away from shore. Then they open it for business, complete with widescreen televisions, hot chili, and rods for rent. 

“Out on this big ice, the stars just pop,” Henry rhapsodizes. “I’ve never seen stars so bright. And the Northern Lights—people call me up and say, ‘I know you told me, but I really had to see it for myself to believe it.’”

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