Just because the weather’s turned chilly – Okay, it’s downright cold! – doesn’t mean it’s time to put those fishing rods away. Bundle up the family, make yourself a couple big thermoses of hot chocolate, and, unless you’re there already, point the truck toward the great state of Minnesota and some of the best ice-fishing on the planet.
Located on the western edge of the Twin Cities, Lake Minnetonka’s 14,500 acres are not only teeming with a variety of fish species but sit close enough to home for most folks that a day-trip can typically be accomplished quite easily.
Walleyes are a major winter draw on the big lake; however, these fickle night-fighters can prove somewhat frustrating for even experienced anglers. Thankfully, ‘Tonka supports excellent populations of both crappie and bluegill; both of which will usually not hesitate to gulp down any number of offerings, live or artificial.
As is the case on most hardwater lakes around the Upper Midwest, ice anglers, with or without young ones in tow, can benefit from two vital pieces of reference material. The first are contour maps of the lake in question; paperwork or printable files, both of which are usually available by contacting the state fish and game agency (dnr.state.mn.us.com; 651-296-6157). The second is a Vexilar unit (vexilar.com; 952-884-5291). These flashers/depth-finders drastically reduce the number of dead or seemingly fishless holes that anglers drill as they search for fish, structure, or both.
Lake Mille Lacs
Didn’t have time for that summer vacation with the family? Not to worry, for it’s Lake Mille Lacs to the rescue! Situated just a short drive north of The Cities, Mille Lacs features the ultimate in family friendly on-ice activities, amenities such as ice homes, complete with separate bedrooms, television, and – Ready? – indoor bathroom facilities. Plowed roads, round-the-clock hockey games, and, if catching fish is indeed a priority, multitudinous ice-fishing guide services. For all the latest information on planning your winter get-away, visit the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council’s website at millelacs.com, or call 320-676-9972.
North and a little west of Mille Lacs lie the 109,000 acres of Leech Lake. Like its sister to the south, Leech, the second largest lake in Minnesota, has over the years earned itself a reputation as one of the premier walleye lakes in the country; however, that’s not to say that there aren’t other things for the winter-time angler to focus on.
“Each winter in February, they folks up at Leech Lake hold what they call the Eelpout Festival,” laughs Curt Johnson, outdoor media relations specialist for the Minnesota Office of Tourism. “We’ll get about 14,000 people on that lake for a long weekend.”
“There’s a little park in Walker right on the edge of Leech Lake,” Johnson continued. “And they convert that in a little festival area each winter. They put up tents. There are vendors there. They have an ice house parade down Main Street. I think it started, way back, with two outhouses. Somebody stepped out the door of a restaurant or something and said, ‘Hey, look. A parade.’ Now it is a parade. They have frozen turkey bowling. Anyway, there’s thousands and thousands of people who show up for this, and there’s even some fishing that goes on at the same time.”
Surprisingly enough, there are actual eelpout fishing contests that go on during the traditional Eelpout Festival. One of these contests, says Johnson, is referred as Team Tonnage. In this event, as many as 20 anglers per team compete to catch as many eelpout as state regulations allow during a pre-set length of time. At the close of fishing, each team weighs its catch collectively, and the team with the highest weight earns the coveted title ofTeam Tonnage. If you’re too late now, it’s definitely something to shoot for next year!
Kids on the Ice
It’s a dilemma. You want to take the kids ice-fishing, but, let’s face it. It’s cold out there. The wind’s blowing, the snow’s falling, and you’re thinking about heading outdoors to sit on six inches of frozen water in the hopes of catching a bluegill? You can hear it already. “Daddy, it’s cold out here.” And you know what? Your 10-year-old is onto something; she’s right – it’s COLD out here.
Fortunately, frigid temperatures don’t you have to stay indoors. It’s possible to enjoy an afternoon of ice-fishing with your family, little ones very much included, if you think about a few things first. Remember, cold can mean miserable, but it doesn’t have to.
First, give some serious thought to where you’re planning to take the family ice-fishing. In other words, there are good choices and there are bad choices when it comes to sitting on the ice. The edge of an ice floe in Lake Erie’s Western Basin over 18 feet of slushy water jigging Swedish Pimples for finicky walleyes? Probably a poor choice for your twin 10-year-olds and your wife, who came along because (1) she wants to spend a nice afternoon with her family, and (2) she wants to see, firsthand, what this ice-fishing thing is all about. A better choice would be Farmer Jones’ farm pond, which in addition to being in the lee of a hill and therefore out of the wind, contains bluegills and crappies that fight amongst themselves just for the privilege of getting on a little kid’s hook. And by the way, if you ask nicely, Farmer Jones might just let you truck in enough firewood to build a right nice bonfire on the shoreline – just in case “those little ones get cold.”
Secondly, make sure everyone who’s going dresses properly – and remember this one simple rule about dressing for the cold: it’s much easier to take it off if you get too warm than it is to put it on if you don’t have it. If it’s cold enough, snowmobile suits all around, including ultra-warm gloves, mittens, boots and stocking caps. And here a word to the wise – pack extra clothes. A small waterproof duffle bag is the perfect carrying case for extra mittens, hats, socks, scarves – anything that might get damp and hasten the cry of “Daddy…I’m freez’n to death!” And while you’re packing, don’t forget that being warm inside is just as important as being warm on the outside. A thermos or two of hot chocolate is always a good idea; better yet, and if you can drive close to the pond, pack in a small grill – Coleman’s Road Trip Grill is the perfect size! – and keep hot water on one side, hot dogs or grilled cheese on the other. Even if the fish don’t cooperate, the day will be a success if everyone’s tummy is full!
And finally, parents, always remember that this isn’t a fishing tournament – it’s supposed to be fun. Shovel off a small section of ice, and let the kids skate or just slip and slide around. Build a fort, and have a snowball fight. A heavy black piece of cloth used as a “hood” will let you and your anglers look down into the water through your fishing hole, and can help you all unlock the mysteries of the deep – together. Whether it’s June or January, there’s really nothing better than spending time with your family. And who knows, you might just catch enough ice-water ‘gills for a mid-winter fish fry.