Get Hooked on Minnesota Ice Fishing

By Brian Fanelli

Sunset over an ice fishing house on Lake of the Woods
Sunset over a fish house at Zippel Bay Resort on Lake of the Woods / Photo by Joe Henry

Jarrid Houston will convince you to go ice fishing in the same way Paul Bunyan might convince you to wear flannel.

He’s not pushy about it, but Houston’s confidence in the glory of Minnesota’s quintessential winter activity is undeniably contagious. “I find it hard to believe that anybody would go ice fishing once and not want to do it again. Once you do it, you’re gonna be hooked—it’s 100 percent my favorite type of fishing.”

Now the owner/proprietor of Houston’s Guide Service in Duluth, Jarrid’s lifelong love affair with ice fishing dates back to the cold and sunny winters of his childhood. “We used to go with grandpa and use a regular string on a stick,” he recalls. “Just sitting out on the lake on 5-gallon pales, no shelters and definitely no electronics. But I got that Norwegian blood in my body; my ancestors are from Sweden. We just sucked it up and wore wool socks and mittens.”

Ice fishing in the Superior National Forest
Ice fishing in the Superior National Forest / Photos by Alyssa Hei

That’s ice fishing in its purest form, sweet and simple: Just you, the line you drop through a hole in the ice, and the fish you pull back up. For anglers who spend most of the year glued to the screen of a depth-finder—or any other number of high-tech fishing tools—the drop-your-line-and-wait simplicity of a day on the ice can be a welcome change of pace.

Even though some anglers still enjoy dragging a bucket onto the ice to drop a line, the metal bucket nostalgia of Houston’s youth is hardly representative of the modern ice fishing experience. Today’s ice fishing trips tell an entirely different—and much warmer—story.

‘Ice Fishing Is No Longer Cold’

A large family enjoys a roomy ice house on Mille Lacs
Large families love the roomy ice houses on Lake Mille Lacs / Photo by Mille Lacs Area Tourism

Imagine sitting comfortably on the edge of a bunk inside your heated fish house, sipping schnapps and playing cards with your fishing buddies. Here, the toughest decision is whether to put your minnow on a jig, or a bare hook. (Or, since one angler can legally drop a line in two holes at once, fish one hole each way. Problem solved.)

“Ice fishing is no longer cold,” says Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. These days, he says, you can enjoy an authentic fishing experience that’s almost entirely absent of the freezing temperatures that make it all possible. “Stay at a nice resort, eat a delicious breakfast, take heated ice transportation to your fish house. When you arrive, the fish house is on fish, the thermostat is set at 70 degrees, and the holes are drilled and cleaned. You’re ready to fish.”

More than 150 Minnesota resorts and guide businesses rent ice-fishing houses to visitors, or include it as part of a lodging/ice fishing package, and the range of options is simply incredible. Rentable fish houses range from simple four-hole day houses to elaborate “sleeper” cabins complete with a stove, stereo, bunks and bathroom. Fish houses of all types are typically heated, often with pre-drilled holes and bait and tackle provided, including “rattle reels” that let you know when you’ve got a bite. The resorts and guides take care to place their fish houses where fishing is best, often moving the houses over the season as the hot spots change.

An ice road lined with fish houses on Lake Mille Lacs
An ice road lined with fish houses cuts across Lake Mille Lacs

Lake Mille Lacs is particularly famous for its luxury sleeper houses, but you’ll find all manner of fish houses on the “Big Pond” of central Minnesota. Each winter, thousands of fish houses set up on its frozen surface, transforming the lake’s vast, 200-mile expanse of ice into a loosely connected chain of bustling, temporary towns—some big enough to offer trash pickup, street signs, plowed roads and even pizza delivery to their seasonal residents and guests. Whether you’re spending just a few hours on the ice or a whole weekend, plumbing the icy depths of Mille Lacs for bass, northern pike and pan fish alongside thousands of fellow anglers might just become your next winter tradition.

In far northwest Minnesota along the Canadian border, Lake of the Woods offers a more off-the-beaten-path experience to its visitors. Although Lake of the Woods hosts somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 fish houses during the season, the lake’s massive size easily dwarfs any sense of overcrowding: Not including the Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods is the largest inland freshwater lake in the lower 48.

The fish in Lake of the Woods are incredibly active all year round. Even in the heart of winter, many anglers have no trouble landing their daily limit of walleye, saugers, northern pike or eelpout, plus the occasional jumbo perch or tulibee. Resorts and other businesses rent ice fishing houses out of Baudette, Warroad and Angle Inlet, a tiny resort town on the northwest corner of the lake that can only be reached by driving through Canada (or by snowmobile over the frozen lake). One resort on Lake of the Woods—Zippel Bay Resort out of Williams—even operates its own Igloo Bar, with beer, wine, mixed drinks, a simple menu, and the option of jigging for walleye from your bar stool.

The igloo bar at Zippel Bay Resort on Lake of the Woods
The igloo bar at Zippel Bay Resort on Lake of the Woods

While Lake of the Woods and Mille Lacs are two of Minnesota’s largest ice fishing hubs, opportunity abounds across the entire state. That’s the beauty of ice fishing in the land of 10,000 frozen lakes—no matter where you are, there’s almost always an active winter fishery nearby (and a friendly, local guide to help you find it).

Other destinations with ice house rentals include Lake Winnibigoshish and its smaller twin Little Winnibishoshish, both the Brainerd and Alexandria areas, Otter Tail County, Lake Vermilion, Leech Lake, Bemidji, Rainy Lake near International Falls, and lakes Minnetonka and Waconia in the metro area.

And of course, there’s Jarrid Houston’s home turf of the inland lakes around Duluth. “We have everything here,” boasts Houston. “Brown trout, splake trout, coho salmon, walleye, pike, eelpout, sturgeon, panfish. The lakes around here are as good as any lake in the whole state.”

Ice Fishing Festivals

The International Eelpout Festival from above
The International Eelpout Festival takes place in Walker every February

Even if you don’t ice fish, you can still celebrate this Minnesota tradition at one of many festivals around the state—including at the world’s largest ice fishing contest, the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Extravaganza. Hosted each January on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay, the tournament pulls in 10,000 anglers from around the world to compete for more than $150,000 in cash and prizes.

Dedicated to one of the ugliest fish in the world, the International Eelpout Festival is a treasured tradition in Walker. In addition to the ice fishing contest, there are also sporting traditions like eelpout rugby, eelpout curling (blocks of ice with eelpouts sticking out of them serve as the rocks), a polar plunge, and a bar made out of 40,000 pounds of ice.

Other notable fests include:

More Fishing & Hunting