LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. — For months they blended together under the subtle guise of snow and ice. But in an annual rite of spring in the far, far reaches of northwestern Minnesota, the not-so-subtle differences between the two resources are becoming more and more noticeable.
On Lake of the Woods and the adjoining Rainy River on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, there’s still nearly a month of the walleye and sauger season remaining. But getting to those fish typically can be iffy on both waterways this time of year.
Like much of the Northland, the Lake of the Woods area hasn’t had much of a winter. This past weekend, continued warm weather and then rain further deteriorated ice that, while more than safe for vehicle traffic in most areas up to that point, hasn’t been up to the usual standards there.
That was evident over the weekend, when it was reported that two vehicles went through the ice on the lake — the Lake of the Woods County Sheriff’s Office said two pickups fell into about four-and-a-half feet of water, reportedly at Four Mile Bay, not far from where the river flows into the lake.
No injuries were reported, which is good news. Still, bad ice in mid-March is bad news for anglers looking to take advantage of the longer season on the lake (although overall, the walleye/sauger bite seemingly has gone the way of the ice of late).
But on the river, the “season” is just beginning, also much earlier than usual.
According to Lake of the Woods Tourism, reports of open water on the river started trickling in as early as last week, with reports of anglers putting boats in soon after at the Birchdale and Vidas landing accesses just east of Baudette off Minnesota State Highway 11.
The open-water report on the Rainy River as of Wednesday, according to Lake of the Woods Tourism, has open water all the way from Baudette to the west of Clementson — about eight miles east of Baudette — with open water reportedly progressing each day.
The area got several inches of snow Wednesday, with low temperatures in the mid- to high teens expected through the weekend, but that shouldn’t do much to slow the process both on the lake and the river. (To follow the progress of ice-out on the river and find access points for boats, go to www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?hl=en&hl=en&authuser=0&authuser=0&mid=zo-35eHGLwtE.kbLmxP3aDIW8.)
Anglers reportedly are targeting walleye — the season runs to April 14, with two walleyes under 19.5 inches allowed per angler each day — and the Rainy River is renowned for trophy walleye. But, if it hasn’t started already, expect a rush for sturgeon before long — the catch-and-release season has been going since Oct. 1, 2015 and runs to April 23 on the river, followed by a harvest season April 24-May 7 and another catch-and-release session May 8-15. More on the surging sturgeon fishing phenomenon on the Rainy River can be found in Northland Outdoors’ spring magazine, which published recently and also will be posted at www.northlandoutdoors.com in the coming days. (To subscribe to the magazine for free, go to www.northlandoutdoors.com/subscribe/.)
Ice on the Minnesota side of the lake still is fishable in most areas, and likely will be for a little while longer, at least via foot traffic. “Permanent” shelters can legally be on the ice until March 31 at Lake of the Woods, but at Long Point, shelters were removed one after another after another over the weekend. By Sunday, any resort shelters that remained before the weekend were gone, along with most others — what still is usually a mini-village this time of year was a ghost town.
A solid bite across the Minnesota side of the lake most of this hardwater season also had all but disappeared. It was the year of the sauger on Lake of the Woods, but even these smaller relatives of the walleye had become scarce by the weekend. With rain Sunday, fishing was relegated to targeting pike in a small portable house over about 6 feet of water near the Long Point shoreline. A couple of decent-sized pike joined the party, but the rainy day seemed to signify an end here.
And, just a few miles away, a beginning. Yes, when winter turns to spring here, a Rainy day is a good day.