Creating Ice Fishing of Epic Proportions


Thousands flock every winter to the famous waters of Lake of the Woods to enjoy some of the best ice fishing in North America. Most take advantage of the unique infrastructure that has been created, traversing from a heated resort into a heated ice rig to a heated fish house without lifting a finger. Others prefer the challenge of doing it on their own with their own equipment, either driving out on a plowed ice road or navigating on a groomed snowmobile trail across the lake up to the NW Angle.

There are many options in these parts. But what most visitors don’t realize is what happens behind the scenes to make this incredible environment possible.

Prepping for the winter season for some is a year-round process. For most, though, the process starts up toward the end of summer; resorts get their ice fishing vehicles, trailers, fish houses and other equipment ready.

For the many fish houses, there is painting, adding new skids, repairs, checking heaters, fixing windows and other tasks. Part of this process involves the decision of how many houses to retire from the fleet. Some of these have seen sub-40 temperatures, gale-force winds and thousands of fish for families and groups.

From a mechanical perspective, light ice rigs, such as Geo Trackers with heated trailers, are the norm for transporting people out to the fish houses early in the season. These rigs are fixed up, tuned up, welded and made operational so that when that first ice forms in early December, they are ready to roll.

As the ice thickens, many resorts will transport visitors in a bombardier or a homemade-type of track rig. These rigs allow clearance over large snowdrifts and exceptional traction with long tracks instead of tires. The rigs are typically steered with big skis on the front of the vehicle, similar to snowmobile skis, rather than tires that get stuck in the deeper snow. Fully heated, these rigs are part of the experience in “The Walleye Capital.”

In early December when the ice finally forms, resorts from around the lake up through the Northwest Angle are working hard marking trails and searching for the thickest ice. Often, some of the more aggressive, experienced ice guides are navigating out on a mere couple of inches of ice, checking progress. This is discouraged for the majority, but for many ice guides, they take precautions and have done it for years.

When the ice reaches about 3 inches, most resorts use a chainsaw to check the thickness of the ice. The guide bar of the chainsaw is marked off in inches. While slowly cutting down into the ice, the workers can tell when the water begins to spray up just how thick the ice is, by how deep into the ice the guide bar is. This is a quick way to check the ice in a variety of different spots while staking trails.

In some cases, an ice road might cross a stretch of land that separates a bay from the main lake, such as Pine Island and Zippel Bay on the south shore. These crossings are primarily sand. As soon as they can make it across the bay, resorts that have a road or bombardier trail will actually cut a hole in the ice and pump water into the sand. By soaking the sand with the water, travel is easier and it reduces wear and tear on fish houses and other equipment. This is normally done on cold days so the road will freeze hard, making it easier to cross the island.

Once at the lake, the ice here is usually more consistent than the bay ice. Sometimes when there is a strong wind when the ice is forming, there can be areas of really rough ice. Ice guides normally chop it down and then flood it, making the ice road as smooth as possible. In addition, some resorts will drag the ice with a heavy steel grid every time they drive out. This shaves the ice helping out if it is rough.

There are a few pilots in the area who will fly the lake to observe and take notes on what part of the lake freezes first, what part stays open the latest and where there might be rough ice. Resorts continue to test the ice out to fertile fishing grounds. Closely monitoring the ice every day, they know when it is right to allow the first bit of travel from ATVs with collapsible fish houses. After a short period of cold weather, resorts begin bringing put out the first few fish houses. These experience some of the best fishing of the year. It is always important to follow the marked trails of the resorts, as thickness of the ice can obviously vary.

Typically around December 15, the snowmobile trails are staked from the mouth of the Rainy River across the lake to the Northwest Angle to the north, Warroad the west, and to Baudette along the Rainy River to the south. These trails really open up travel to the many resorts up at the Angle.

“We actually have six snowmobiles the day we mark the trail,” says Gregg Hennum, owner of Sportsman’s Lodge, who also stakes and grooms the trail. “Two sleds haul trailers with the stakes. Two more go ahead and drill holes that are about 2 inches in diameter, while the other two follow and stick in the marker poles.”

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The poles are colored black with reflective tape around the top, not only to see the trail, but the black marker also allows melting in the warmer weather months.

“With those black markers, the ice around the marker melts nicely in the spring, allowing us to pull markers out while moving along at a nice clip on a snowmobile. We have one person drive while the other will sit on the back of the snowmobile and pull the trail markers,” Hennum explains.

Nick Painovich, owner of Zippel Bay Resort, is also busy preparing for the busy ice season. He, like many resort owners, is one of the first out early on thin ice, checking conditions and staking a trail.

“I invested in an airboat a number of years ago to make things easier on me. This way, as I am checking ice through Zippel Bay and eventually out on the main lake, I have a sense of security.”

Painovich and many others use a chainsaw marked off in inches on the blade to quickly and efficiently test ice depths. He places flags in the areas he has checked that are coming along nicely, and a double flag in areas that are a bit thinner.

With the goal of thicker ice, Painovich sometimes helps Mother Nature out a bit.

“Out in the open areas, we get some wind that blows the snow off the ice, creating thicker ice. Back in the narrow parts of the bay, the wind doesn’t hit these areas so much and snow starts accumulating. Because of this, I will take out my airboat and give it some power, blowing much of the snow off of the ice, which allows it to freeze quicker.”

Zippel Bay is famous for their Igloo Bar on the ice. This oversized fish house is in the shape of an igloo, painted the color of ice blocks and shaped like a real igloo. With over 1,000 square feet on the inside, electric lights, big screen TV, full bar and partial food menu, this is definitely a gathering spot for visitors. Did I mention that you can actually fish inside the bar?

“We take the Igloo Bar out in two pieces, and with a cumalong, pull the two pieces together once the bar is in the right spot. We need about 15 inches of ice to bring it out,” Painovich explains. “We also prepare the ice some before setting the igloo. I actually will build a snow bank around the spot where the Igloo Bar will be placed. I punch a hole in the ice and pump lake water on the ice, flooding it. I will build this spot up, actually forming a crown on the ice of 3 to 4 inches, also giving the ice more strength.”

Painovich added the Igloo usually gets out on the ice before Christmas.

Yes, the winter months at Lake of the Woods are filled with good times, snowmobiling and certainly lots of ice fishing. The next time you come up and are being transported out to a fish house, driving on an ice road or zipping along on a snowmobile trail, give an extra thought about all of the preparation that takes place to make this frozen environment an ice fishing mecca.


For more information on lodging, snowmobiling, and ice fishing on Lake of the Woods, contact Lake of the Woods Tourism at 800-382-FISH (3474) or at