Now that we’re into February, I’m giddy like a school girl. And not just from the Katy Perry spilling out of my daughters’ hi-fi speakers. Not that they know what a “hi-fi” is.
I heart Valentine’s Day.
No bomb-sniffing dogs, no body cavity searches, no kitchen patrol, playing well with my loving wife on Valentine’s Day gets me full customs clearance for late-ice, a big bold red-inked stamp in the passport of what it means to be a man.
Freedom to go, as Garrison Keillor once described of ice fishing—and I’m paraphrasing—“where men are allowed to think their own thoughts.”
So, arms outstretched, bring on the VD.
Over the years I’ve drilled up quite a bit of the Midwestern and Northern Ice Belt, but haven’t fished much hardwater east of Wisconsin, or west of Devils Lake. Venture too far west into oil country and I might just find a real job with real money. That’d be a shame. I’d hate to remove this bumper sticker from my truck: “Don’t tell my mom I’m a fishing writer, she’s thinks I play piano in a cathouse.”
With regards to The East, I’m scared of what I’ll find. Catch a couple plus-10 “teeny-bopper” walleyes (as Ron Lindner calls ‘em) on Erie or Ontario’s Bay of Quinte and I’d be ruined for life, possibly enough to disavow my sensible Minnesota roots.
Kind of like when Garrison Keillor moved A Prairie Home Companion from St. Paul to NYC.
Bearing that in mind, here are four top late-ice picks in the middle and northern tiers of the Ice Belt—waters I’ve fished and the hootches I’ve called home. Depending on the weather, some of these spots can offer hardwater action into early April.
So, with allegiance to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, let’s start there. Hidden Haven Resort – Grand Rapids, MN
In Minnesota, walleye season closes on February 22nd, so most of my late-ice program is panfish, barring the occasion or two to fish hardwater trout.
For panfish, look no farther than the Itasca County area around Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Think Bowstring Lake and lots of little lakes that may require a blindfold if you hire an ace guide like Brian Brosdahl, Jeff Sundin, Nik Dimich, Reed Ylitalo, or Tom Neustrom. Venture closer to Bemidji and good guys Paul Nelson or Jason Rylander can put you on fish.
One of my favorite spots is Bass Lake, just minutes from Grand Rapids near the town of Cohasset. Thanks to MN DNR Experimental and Special Regulations that limit sunfish (including bluegills) daily possession to five fish, it is not uncommon to catch honest 10-inch ‘gills here—which are fantastic for photos. Keep in mind that there’s only a forkful of difference between an 8- and 10 inch ‘gill.
Looking for convenience? Stay at Hidden Haven Resort, located on the northwest shore of Big Bass. Gorgeous northwoods-style accommodations at a realistic price.
Stay up to date with info on the best bites, plus a large selection of tackle and bait by talking with Grant or Andy at 1,000 Lakes Sporting Goods in Cohasset.
The walleye bite on Devils Lake can get epic during late-ice, typically that last week of March into April, depending on the year. What’s even better is it can be done on foot. Many fish can be caught close to shore throughout the lake, as walleyes travel near-shore routes toward spring spawning habitat.
Of course, Devils also offers some of the best big perch fishing in the country. This year has been fantastic for truck travel throughout the lake, given minimal snow cover.
Contact any of the following guides for current conditions and fishing reports:
Jason Feldner (Perch Eyes Guide Service)
Steve “Zippy” Dahl (Perch Patrol)
If you have a large group, consider lodging at Westbay Resort, which has clean and spacious houses available for rent not far from the action. Large kitchens and dining spaces make feeding a large, hungry crew easy and fun. And enough room to bring the in-laws or friends of friends for a full hardwater assault.
Sturgeon Bay is probably the closest destination to Chicago, Minneapolis, and most midwestern cities to catch a trophy walleye through the ice. Although it’s not a numbers game, the fish that are caught c morning and late afternoon into evening are giants—typically anywhere from 8 to 14 pounds.
Then, during the day, catch countless whitefish just a stone’s throw from comfortable and modern lodging at Dale and Karen Stroschein’s Sand Bay Beach Resort. Guides shuttle guests to and from both walleye and whitefish in Ranger UTVs.
If you’re new to the whitefish game, prepare for rod-bending action with the frequency of a panfish bite. Sweetening the deal, whitefish are fantastic eating, whether smoked, baked or fried. As you know from this recent blog, they also make a wicked chowder.
Definitely a top pick for the family, too. Sand Bay Beach Resort features an indoor pool, whirlpool and sauna. The nearby town of Sturgeon Bay – and the rest of scenic Door County—features many historical, cultural and arts-related attractions.
I’ve fished with Dale Stroschein and crew, as well as Brett Alexander and company. Both offer well-organized trips, including hard house rentals, perfect for kids and older anglers.
Some of the very best ice fishing I’ve ever experienced has been on NW Ontario’s Lake of the Woods during late-ice. Find narrows between islands and chances are you’ll discover any host of species moving from wintering locations to spring habitat. Over the years, we’ve caught large walleyes, lake trout and pike all in the same areas – sometimes in water as shallow as 10-15 feet.
Late-ice is also a good time of year to consider fishing the “back lakes” for crappies via snow machine. Many of these waters go virtually untouched in the winter and the bite can be incredible, with a shot at fish in the honest 15- to 17 inch slab variety. And even if you don’t tap the giants, the number of 12-inchers is excellent. You can stink up a pan pretty quick.
In lieu of lodging at resorts, I’ve stayed at the pet-friendly Super 8 Motel in Kenora, which was clean and inexpensive. Not a bad location to get to most ice fishing spots, and the Casey’s Grill & Bar next door grills a good steak.
My late-ice plans? I will be fishing the sloughs of NE South Dakota and SE North Dakota for the first time, as well as a run to Mike and Erin Gate’s Sunset Cove Resort on the Canadian Lake of the Woods with my uncle Danny and cousin Paul. I’ll let you know how we do!
Good luck and stay safe during late-ice! Here’s a video to brush up on ice safety!