Some anglers just don’t like fishing out of boats. They want something hard under their boots when they have a rod in their hand. Most of the year that sidelines them to fishing from the shore. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in the upper Midwest, when lakes freeze, the hard-topped lakes offer them chances to fish offshore hotspots way too distant to reach when standing on shore.
Some anglers have fair-weather jobs that keeps them busy earning a living in the warm months in trade for having plenty of fishing time the rest of the year. Being an ice fisherman is tailor made for their lifestyle.
Many people just plain like pulling fish out of the water so much it doesn’t matter if it’s from the shore, in a boat or through a hole drilled in a frozen lake – fishing is fishing.
For all these reasons, ice fishing is increasingly a sport people plan and travel to do each winter. For them, there’s no sticking to local lakes when and if they get safe ice. There’s no bars to targeting only the species of fish available in this area. One of the favorite species on-the-go winter anglers like to target is walleye. These fish are quite active in the winter, so fairly easy to catch, they are abundant in many areas, often fairly sizeable and walleyes are crazy tasty as table fare.
For those of you wanting to plan a winter, hard water excursion, I checked with my ice fishing friends and members of the Ice Team – tournament ice fishermen who travel and fish for a living – about their top picks for winter fishermen with a case of the wanderlust. Here’s their (and my) top five spots.
LAKE WINNIPEG – MANITOBA: Not only does the lake kick out high numbers of fish, but the average size is absolutely ridiculous. You have an excellent chance at catching a 10-lb (or better) fish on each outing, and by the end of the day you’ll hardly bat an eye at a 24-26” fish. For that reason this lake should be at the top of every hardwater angler’s bucket list.
The lake stretches 258 miles north to south, though most fishing takes place on the south shore at the mouth of the Red River, roughly 30 minutes north of the city of Winnipeg. The hard-packed snow makes “Big Windy” extremely tough on equipment, but the reward is worth the effort.
LAKE OF THE WOODS – MINNESOTA/ONTARIO: The sheer amount of walleyes Lake of the Woods produces is almost beyond belief. The south shore of the lake is known best for its expansive schools of eater-sized walleyes/saugers that bite all day long, but don’t be surprised if you ice a true wall-hanger there too. Though LOW is popular, the lake fishes big – no need to worry about overcrowding and playing bumper shacks.
DEVILS LAKE – NORTH DAKOTA: Hard water pro, Jason Mitchell says, “The good days at Devils Lake are as good as it gets, anywhere, any time.” Leave your panfish-sized auger at home. Devils is packed with freshwater shrimp and the fish have serious girth. A big hole is needed just to squeeze the fish up through the ice.
LAKE ERIE – OHIO/MICHIGAN: Lake Erie has one of the best balances of numbers and big fish in the world. Millions of walleyes migrate to the western end of the lake in order to spawn after ice out. Fish over 12 lbs are caught regularly when conditions are right and the lake is fishable. Erie doesn’t always freeze over, so you’ll need to take advantage of years where there’s good ice.
UPPER RED LAKE – MINNESOTA: Anyone who is a numbers sort of fisherman instead of an angler just after the big-ones should consider Upper Red Lake. URL can sometimes be like fishing on an off-limits rearing pond. When the bite is on, the fish will bite whatever lure or bait is dropped down as fast as it can be dropped. Need a break for a cup of coffee or other reason? Pull your line to make sure you can down the coffee while it’s still hot. Right now this walleye factory is likely the best numbers lake for walleye across the ice belt and the average size is rising. Fish measuring over 20 inches are becoming much more common but most of the catch will be 17 inches (legal minimum) to 20-inchers.