It’s just you, the line you drop through a hole in the ice, and the fish you pull back through the hole. No boat, no motor, no casting, no trolling, and typically no depth-finder or other high-tech equipment. In its purest form, ice fishing is sweet and simple.
If it’s a nice day, you might sit on a bucket on the ice that doubles as a crappie cooler. Or you can sit comfortably on the edge of a bunk inside a heated ice house with a stove and electricity, sipping schnapps and playing cards with your fishing buddies. At that point, 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.)
More than 150 Minnesota lodging and guide businesses rent ice houses, or include it as part of a lodging/ice fishing package. Lake of the Woods, on the Canadian border, is one of the most popular and productive ice fishing lakes in the state, with resorts and other businesses renting 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—operates the Igloo Bar, with beer, wine, mixed drinks, a simple menu, and the option of jigging for walleye from your bar stool.
Walleye, crappie, northern pike and eating-size perch are ice fishing favorites, but you can catch almost anything in the winter that you can catch in the summer. Walker’s Leech Lake is home to the International Eelpout Festival, Feb. 23-26, dedicated to one of the ugliest fish in the world. The eelpout, also known as the burbot, is related to the saltwater cod and cooks up quite nicely, fried into beer-battered eelpout nuggets for sale at the festival. There are also sporting events like eelpout curling and rugby, live music and other on-ice shenanigans.
Other lakes with ice house rentals include Lake Mille Lacs out of Isle on the southeast corner of the lake, Onamia on the southwest and Garrison on the northwest; plus Lake Winnibigoshish and its smaller twin Little Winnibishoshish. Ice house rentals are also available on many lakes in the Brainerd Lakes area, on the edge of the western end of the Boundary Waters out of Ely, and the eastern end along the Gunflint Trail out of Grand Marais.
You can also do it on your own on any lake known to be good for ice fishing, by just drilling a hole in a good spot and sitting on a folding chair or a bucket. Both gas-powered (recommended!) and hand-powered augers are available at many larger sporting goods and outdoor equipment stores, as are folding pop-up shelters for one person or several, and portable heaters.
Options run from small, simple four-holer shacks to larger mini-cabins with stove, stereo, bunks and a bathroom area. Some are designed for overnight stays, though more anglers spend their nights at a resort or motel off the lake. Ice houses 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 take care to place the ice houses where fishing is best, often moving the houses over the season as the hot spots change. What’s provided differs from business to business, so make sure to ask what you need to bring with you.
A variation of ice fishing is spearing in a dark house, where you make a large hole in a likely spot and wait for a larger northern pike to cruise by. Several businesses on Lake Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, and the Whitefish Chain of Lakes north of Brainerd rent dark houses and everything you need for this exciting sport.
Ice fishing tournaments and related festivals and events around the state can be a good way to meet up with people who love the sport and can give you tips. In addition to Walker’s International Eelpout Festival, there’s the Grumpy Old Men Festival Feb. 25 in Wabasha; Polar Fest Feb. 10-20 in Detroit Lakes, with an ice fishing derby on Feb. 11; and Beginner Ice Fishing seminars at Fish Lake (Jan. 12 and 29) and Cedar Lake (Feb. 4) regional parks in the Minneapolis suburbs.