Ice Fishing Dream Trip
During the two hour flight to Winnipeg from Toronto I must have had a constant silly little grin on my face because all I could think about was ice fishing for the next week in north western Ontario and Minnesota. Along with Bob and Wayne Izumi and the head of their TV productions - Tammy Love we landed at 10am March 19th/07 and met up with our sponsors from High Tech Tackle - Tom Grunewald and Eric Poster who drove there from their home state of Wisconsin. "Big Jim" McLaughlin, flying on a separate plane (no, not because he's that big!) from Ottawa had also just touched down
There too was Rick Saar the sales manager from SnoBear - the Cadillac type Bombardier that we would be travelling in on the fish-filled frozen northern waters. After loading up the vehicles we began our four hour drive to Baudette Minnesota - where our ice fishing adventure begins.
It was not long after we left Winnipeg that it became quite apparent how flat and prairie-like the terrain was. It wasn't the typical Canadian Shield country of northern Ontario that we were used to as we traversed the western portion of Lake of the Woods (LOTW) on into Minnesota. Along the way we saw our first bald eagles of the trip and more whitetail deer than you can shake a stick at. Upon our arrival in Baudette on the south shores of LOTW it was abundantly clear that this was one heck of a fishing town.
Eric Poster remarked "This is a typical fishing village here in the northern US - where the whole town centres on catering to the recreational anglers that come from all over to fish here." Evidence of this was displayed by the huge Willie the Walleye display and Welcome to Lake of the Woods Fishermen sign. Every other store seemed to be a bait and tackle shop and even the gas stations didn't want to miss out on the action and carried their share of tackle and other angler paraphernalia.
Here Wil poses with Willie the Walleye in Baudette Minnesota. Photo by E. Poster
As we pulled into Wigwam Resort - one of several fishing operations within view of one another, we were thrilled to see not only one SnoBear there for us but four or five. Each could fish two or three comfortably and with the gang of anglers we had and an expected cold front the next day, we anticipated they would be a luxury few of us would pass up. With the first travel day pretty well shot, we unpacked, went out and bought our Minnesota Fishing Licences and then came back to our cabin to rig all of our ice rods for the next day of walleye fishing.
This was a surprisingly entertaining task - as Eric and Tom from HT had brought along hundreds, possibly thousands of new lures and all kinds of great tackle for us to try, adding to the excitement. After a great dinner in the main lodge with the whole group - which now also included several others like Jimmy Lindner and Dan Sura of Anglers Edge (formerly of In Fisherman), we retired back to the cabin.
Wigwam Resort offers great accommodations and is on the shores of LOTW Photo by E. Poster
The next morning shone bright, clear and cold as we headed out in our convoy of SnoBears. We were fishing Whitefish Bay - an area significantly larger than Lake Simcoe and the spot we chose to fish was about 28 miles out. Considering that back home on Simcoe, I sometimes consider a five or six mile drive out to the lake trout grounds as a big deal - I couldn't help but chuckle. During the 90 minute drive out, Big Jim remarked, "Yah my buddy told me once that if I was ever going to fish walleye on LOTW to give him a call - cause he has a secret spot he'd be willing to tell me." "So did you call him?" I asked. "Yah - stupid bugger said it was a place called Whitefish Bay on the US side! I think I'm gonna have to have a word with that boy when I get back!"
Wil's Perch . Stolen?
The day turned out to be brutally cold and very windy so most of us fished inside the SnoBears all day. "You know, I feel kind of guilty sitting here inside this warm and comfortable little Taj Mahal", I confessed to my fishing partner Big Jim. He replied . "Yah, but you should get over that real quick cause we would freeze our butts off if we spent too much time out there. And when you consider that nearby there are four other SnoBears with two or three people in each fishing . but with not one spot out- producing the other we may as well stay put. Turn that thermostat up a bit will ya?" Seeing as how we were both catching walleye and the odd smaller sauger, he didn't have to tell me twice as a big wind gust suddenly billowed bitterly outside.
Wil's Perch . Stolen?
The gang was anxiously anticipating a delicious meal of fresh walleye fillets that evening, so several of the two-three pounders were kept. including "the perch". The perch hit my HT Glider Jig/Berkley Micro Power Gulp! Minnow combo around noon. It wasn't a monster by any means - maybe 13 inches or so - and definitely nothing we don't see often enough on Simcoe.
Still, thinking of all the smaller than usual perch there this winter I couldn't help but remark "Who'd have thought that I would have to come all the way up to LOTW to catch my biggest perch of the winter!" The perch wouldn't make it back down the hole so we decided to take some pics and keep it for dinner. When Jimmy Lindner stopped by for a visit later that day - he couldn't help but fall in love with that perch. "Man, will ya look at the shoulders on this puppy! That's one gorgeous fish. Wow, just look at her - we caught some smaller ones over there but nothing like this - mind if I show the fella's - they don't think there are perch this big here?" he asked rather sheepishly. Sure no problem.
Here Jimmy Lindner poses with "The Perch" along with Big Jim
When we finished fishing that day, and returned to shore - Big Jim asked me where my perch was? "I dunno - guess it's still with Jimmy and the Anglers Edge crew", I replied. The next day . he asked again - Wil did you ever get your perch back? No Jim - I guess we ate it last night". I said matter of factly. "Hmmm . I think Jimmy Lindner stole your perch! . Hey Bob and Wayne did ya hear the latest? . Jimmy Lindner stole Wil's perch! It struck us all as rather comical - and Jim, being the consummate funny man knew how to play it up too - so for the rest of the trip he made it his mission to tell anyone who'd listen that the famous "Jimmy Lindner stole Wil's Perch"!
Wil with his infamous yellow perch from Lake of the Woods
The next day was a complete reversal of the day before with rain and much warmer temperatures. I spent some of the time fishing out in the open but was driven in to the warmth and dry-comfort of a SnoBear after a couple of hours. This time I was fortunate enough to spend time with the owner and developer of SnoBear Tom Lykken. We had a great time watching the walleye come in on the sonar units and although they were picky, they did like the HT Hornet Jig tipped with that Berkley Gulp! Minnow. Others did equally as well around the hump we had all to ourselves on LOTW.
Traveling in the SnoBears had us coming and going in style
Author of not one but two ice fishing books - Tom Gruenwald with a nice walleye from the American side of Lake of the Woods
Back To Canada:
After a wonderful couple of days at Wigwam Resort in Minnesota we had to say good bye to Jimmy Linder and Dan Sura as we continued our ice fishing adventure and headed to Kenora. One option that was presented to us was to drive our vehicles right from the resort straight across the lake along the ice road to Kenora.
This alternate route would take only half the time of driving around the lake. Although our safety for such an endeavour was not that great of an issue (the ice was still over four feet thick and the roads were well used, maintained and marked) we weren't sure what to do. The offer was tempting and we knew our way out of massive Whitefish Bay alright but if you have ever had a look at the map of LOTW you can see that north of there, it becomes a veritable maze, and we would have to negotiate our way between thousands of islands, inlets and coves. Then there was always the chance of coming up against an unexpected pressure crack that would force us back. Without an experienced guide to lead us it was a mutual decision by all to follow Super Tramp's advice and "Take the Long Way Home".
Before we left Baudette, Eric took this quick photo of a sign that demonstrates how the town identifies itself
For the way back, we drove four hours along the eastern coastline of Lake of The Woods - following the Rainey River for awhile which was just starting to open up in places. "Once the ice leaves completely, the walleye won't be far behind and this place will be filled with open water anglers, catching and releasing those walleye that are moving in from the lake to spawn", explained Eric. For miles and miles along the river on the US side there were public access points to accommodate the visiting anglers. After crossing the border at International Falls it did not take much of a drive to begin noticing the change in terrain and the gorgeous Canadian Shield country of north western Ontario.
Lake Trout Fishing in Sunset Country:
The next day we met up with Gord Pyzer in Kenora and some of the staff from In-Fisherman - Doug Stange and Jeff Simpson. Gord made us promise not to reveal the lake we would be fishing here in "Sunset Country" because of the sensitivity of the fishery. "The lakers here are big n' old, and they could easily be exploited by those not practicing catch and release, so we are trying to keep the fishery from seeing too much pressure", was the unanimously accepted explanation he gave. While driving the hour or so from Kenora to our lake trout destination, we had to suddenly veer away from a freshly killed bald eagle on the middle of the highway.
"Gord in your 30 years or so up here have you ever seen a road kill eagle?" I asked "Well, come to think of it, no I haven't Wil, but considering that there are 900 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in this whole area it's surprising that it's taken this long before I've seen one hit." This particular bird was likely feeding on a roadkill deer we saw near the bird along the highway. During the rest of our stay in Sunset Country we saw dozens of bald eagles every day and seeing as how spring was in the air we even witnessed the incredible scene of watching their mid-air courting ritual. More often however, we would see them feeding on dead carrion on the ice. While travelling back in the SnoBears from a day's fishing one day we watched a large group of eagles feeding on a dead deer. The deer was not there on our way out that morning so was probably brought way out onto the ice by wolves before the eagles came on the scene Gord surmised.
During our first day of lake trout fishing - those fishing and filming for the Izumi Show would go one way and those filming and fishing for the In- Fisherman Show would go somewhere else. Sometimes the two groups could see one another fishing on the opposite sides of the lake and the feeling I got was not unlike the one I sometimes experience during a tournament - when you can't help but wonder just how well your competitor across the lake is doing. For the most part, the fishing was not fast and furious - by Sunset Country standards anyways. There was some excitement though when we (I was on the Izumi team) moved to a new area just off of a nice rocky point.
Someone drilled a quick hole . but then the group of 7 anglers just sort of stood around and talked about whether we should drill more and fish 'here' or go try another spot. I got to thinking . "Hm, all this talk and the whole while this empty hole is just sitting there waiting for a lure to innocently penetrate its icy waters to the depths below. Is no one gonna fish it? That's a shame- it really is." I couldn't stand it anymore, so I walk over and nonchalantly drop my HT Jet Jig tipped with a Berkley Gulp! Shad down the hole. The bait doesn't even reach bottom as I suddenly notice the line falling faster than normal. I close the bail and with a firm hook set my rod is instantly doubled over. The fight lasted about five minutes and with film rolling and the crowd looking on I tried to gingerly guide the big trout through the hole. GONE! As quick as it all started it was over and somehow the big brute had shook the hook. Even worse - no one saw the old sow - over 20 pounds some guessed by the way the fish ran.
Oh well, that fish made everyone race for the power augers and begin drilling through the ~four feet of ice. It was a great looking spot - adjacent to a shoal not far from an extended point on a mid lake island. Before long, Eric had a nice fish on - but his light line was no match for the big laker so it soon broke off. Then it was Wayne Izumi's turn and he swung and felt weight but quickly that fish did the adios amigos trick. After an hour or two of frantically drilling and fishing, drilling and fishing - we had to admit defeat and try elsewhere. This time we would follow Bob and the new GPS co-ordinate that Gord punched into his Lowrance unit aboard the SnoBear. We stopped on a 45 foot hump adjacent to deeper water. This would be it!
Almost right away Bob connected with what we all thought would be a nice laker . and even when he landed it, we still all agreed that it was, well kinda nice . just rather crooked; even for a big old ugly ling.
Ling - a freshwater cod can actually make for some great eating -"Poor man's lobster", some say. This one caught by Bob went back in though.
After fishing for an hour Tom Gruenwald and I decided to make the ice resemble Swiss Cheese so he grabbed the auger and drilled along the inside of the shoal and I finished off all along the outside. With dozens of holes atop the shoal, there was nary a chance for any cruising laker to avoid at least catching a glimpse of one of our baits.
I had no-sooner finished drilling my last hole when I heard Bob yell "Fish On". Bob, like the rest of the crew was walking from hole to hole - hoping this strategy would pay dividends and finally it did. The fight lasted for quite some time but Bob finally teased a big beautiful lake trout through the hole and Big Jim was right there to land it for him. After a quick flurry of photos the old trout was carefully released in great shape.
Bob Izumi lands our first lake trout of the trip
The following day we returned to a similar location and began jumping from one spot to the next. After trying a wide variety of baits the crew decided to experiment with the veritable tackle shop of great looking lures and baits that HT produces. I opted to down size considerably and picked up a medium light HT rod and tied on one of their beautifully painted "Nugget Jigs" - complete with life-like eyes. I then slid on a small Berkley Power Gulp Minnow in the shiner pattern and lowered it down the hole. It reached bottom and sat still for about 30 seconds before I quivered the bait in place with a nervous like twitch.
The hit wasn't hard at all - as the finicky trout must have just inhaled the tiny morsel in ever-so-gently but with light line and super-sensitive equipment the bite did not go unnoticed. After several long and powerful runs - all being filmed and watched by our crew, Bob set everyone at ease by reminding me of what happened to the last big laker I had on! Thanks Bob. "Oh . and Wil, we probably only need to land one more trout to make this segment of the show complete - but hey no pressure, no pressure", he quipped."Yah, thanks again for that". After what seemed like an eternity Canada's most popular TV fishing show host was finally able to stick his hand down the icy hole and land the fish for me - not quite as big as his, but still a nice laker anywhere in the province.
Wil with the last lake trout of the trip
On to the Whitefish
Right after that fish was landed we packed up the SnoBears, drove to shore and put them on the trailers before quickly heading off to another lake for whitefish. This underutilized species may be very popular in places down south like Lake Simcoe but drive 25 hours north and there are relatively few anglers who target them regularly. Gord Pyzer is the exception - having spent his fair share of time on Simcoe "in his younger" days where he learned how to fish our jewel of the south for big whities.
That afternoon we caught about a half a dozen between the group, not bad you would think, but when Gord heard of our results (he was with the In- Fisherman gang) he was shocked that we didn't do better. "These fish have moved early - they were thick as thieves last week but during the latter part of winter they can move quickly and I know where they're at already - so we'll hit that spot together early tomorrow morning." Gord promised!
Well it was our final night in beautiful downtown Kenora, on the shores of beautiful Lake of the Woods. We were staying right in the same Best Western Hotel that is the host site of the infamous Kenora Bass International Tournament. This event sees top anglers like the Izumi's Pyzer the Lindners and others from across North America compete on a regular basis and is extremely well received by the community.
We spent our last meal together not in some fancy restaurant but just gathered together in one of our hotel rooms eating Pizza and discussing our plan of attack for the final half day of fishing before we had to drive to Winnipeg and catch the evening flight back home. When we reached the whitefish destination our plan was to first shoot a segment with Bob and Tom so that we could make sure we took care of business before pleasure.
Everyone likes it when a plan comes together and it did not take the renowned ice fishing experts long before they hooked up with a whitefish and then another and then another and so on and so on. In fact, before we could even think about looking for our own rods - they were practically done - the action was indeed as Gord had promised fast and furious.
Sunset Country Whitefish Patterns
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of fishing for these northwestern Ontario whitefish was how dissimilar they are to our own whities back on Simcoe. Gord explained, "Wil, these fish are all together different in the way they feed, in that they routinely prefer their baits presented 6-8 feet from bottom. Even though their underslung mouths are so perfectly suited to picking up food from bottom - these fish prefer to feed mostly on the smelt that are usually well off bottom. For anglers fishing blind, it really is much more difficult to get bit that's for sure".
What Gord was referring to was the simple need to fish with high quality electronics. The Lowrance Ice Machine did the job perfectly. Whether you prefer to use the customary LCD screen like Bob or the flasher mode like myself, this unit is versatile enough to suit most ice fishing enthusiasts. We could not only watch our lures on the screen but also the whitefish and smelt and how both reacted to our offerings.
A typical Sunset Country whitefish
Eric with his first ever Whitefish
Big Jim and a nice whitey
Unlike Simcoe where a wide wobble and super-flash of silver or gold type spoon excels, here the whities seemed to prefer a more subtle narrow spoon painted in lifelike colors and even coupled with internal rattles. The HT Chatter Spoon therefore was without question the number one bait and helped the majority of the group land several whitefish each. My most productive technique, after a little trial and error, was to jig the spoon 6-8 feet off bottom, hold still and then twitch and quiver. Not only would this bring whities below your hole, it would often force them into striking violently.
Those were the aggressive ones though as I soon discovered that the trick to catching the less aggressive fish was to have another finesse rig ready to go as soon as the sonar told you the whities were not slamming your lure.
When this happened I would quickly real up and grab a 27" HT Polar Lite rod with 4 lb test and drop down an HT Jet Jig or Glider Jig tipped with . you guessed it a Berkley Power Gulp! Minnow. Unlike crappie fishing though where you present the bait well above where the crappie are holding, I would lower it to "eye level" and twitch and quiver then hold still. I don't think this offering was refused even once by the whities down there!
Outdoor Canada Magazine Fishing Editor Gord Pyzer taking photos of "Big Jim" - popular seminar host and publisher/editor of Just Fishing
Well, of course the morning went all too quickly but not before I hauled up my first ever tullibee! Ok . well I guess I'm stretching that a bit because the fish is actually just a lake herring or cisco but up in Sunset Country, that's what most anglers call this fish. Although tasty, it is sometimes also kept and used for a quick strike dead bait rig for monster sized northern pike. During our last drive off the ice in the SnoBears we couldn't help but talk about how fast the week of ice fishing had flown by . and how "if only" we had another day or two so that we could indeed try some of that fishing for big northerns with the HT tip-ups and dead baitfish. Well, that's something we'll all be able to dream about perhaps and hopefully experience if we are ever blessed enough to experience a trip like this again.
Wil with a small tullibee or cisco, or lake herring depending on where you are.
The ultimate finale to this grand ice fishing adventure occurred oddly enough a week after we had all returned to our normally busy lives here in southern Ontario. I was driving back along the 401 from an organizing committee meeting in Oshawa (for the free kids fishing day at Heber Downs on May 26) when who do I see ahead of me in his well marked truck but Big Jim! At 110 kmph, I pull up next to him and give him the customary wave. When he sees who it is, he rolls down his window and quickly yells out .
"HEY DO YOU KNOW THAT JIMMY LINDNER STOLE YOUR PERCH?"
Tom Gruenwald and his infamous bright fluorescent orange hat pulling in his sled as we all get set to pack up and head home on our last day.
I'd like to thank HT Enterprises for the opportunity to have been a part of such a great ice fishing adventure. Spending a week fishing with such a great group of anglers is something I'll always remember.