This week's newspaper column

Warm weather forces ice fishing road trip

Great outdoor adventures often happen out of necessity. All sorts of unforeseen variables create challenges and reshape plans that were thought to be bombproof, sometimes making a better trip than the one planned.

A bomb fell on my annual ice fishing trip this year. I planned well in advance to be sitting on a frozen Fort Peck Reservoir in Montana in February, but instead, found myself sleeping for five days in a shanty in Canada in temperatures that dipped to 32 degrees below zero.

I have long believed Fort Peck Reservoir is America’s best ice fishing lake for trophy northern pike, walleye and lake trout. Because of my bias, there is little I won’t do most years to get at least one crack at her, and February is typically the most foolproof month to find fishable ice there.

The horribly warm winter Indiana encountered this year was a problem everywhere, however.

We knew it was going to be a long shot, but with plans in place my brother and I drove to Peck, anyway. When we got to the north central Montana impoundment it was 45 degrees, raining and not predicted to change anytime soon.

So, we just kept driving east and north. As we drove across Montana, then North Dakota and eventually Minnesota, the temperature just kept getting colder. When we finally crossed the border into Manitoba, Canada, our weather app told us it was 32 below.

We finally located the kind of weather only an ice fisherman could appreciate.

After a Google search and a few calls, we contacted the owner of the Angle Outpost on Lake of the Woods and made quick plans to rent a shanty from them after they told us they had 2 feet of hard ice.

Though it is only accessible on land by passing through Manitoba, the Northwest Angle, where the resort sits, is part of Minnesota.

Despite having our own shanty, gas auger and everything we needed to go it alone, we decided to pay the outpost for the use of one of their sleeper shanties on a reef several miles out into Lake of the Woods’ maze of thousands of islands.

A sleeper cabin is a shanty on the lake that is heated, has bunks, a toilet and in this case, even an oven and stove to cook on. There are holes in the carpeted floor to fish through.

Anglers pay a daily rate and can stay as long as they like, usually fishing 24 hours a day. We didn’t leave our sleeper for five days and had lines in the water the entire time.

Despite the 27 hours of driving it took us to get there, we immediately knew we made a good call and immediately started catching the kind of fish we hoped to find at Fort Peck.

Lake of the Woods has slots for northern and walleye, which always results in lots of fish in the slot, but often fish bigger as well.

The slot for northern there is 30 to 40 inches, which means all fish in that size range cannot be kept. The slot for walleyes is between 19.5 and 28 inches.

For reference, a 28-inch walleye can easily weigh 9 pounds in the winter.

Walleye fishing was spotty for big fish due to a pesky high-pressure ridge that would not relent, but we still caught several fish in the 14- to 18-inch range.

Northern pike are susceptible to high pressure as well, but with a large population of them there, we still had tip up flags flying all day, every day.

If there are small northern pike in Lake of the Woods, we never found them.

Our smallest northern was 30 inches and our largest was 40 inches. We had a few break our 50 pound tip up line above the leader after peeling line out of our hands over and over.

Since we never saw some of the fish that broke off, it is impossible to say what they were. We had a couple theories, however

Lake of the Woods is a world-renowned musky fishery; with fish over 40 pounds very possible and common in open water.

There is a healthy population of monstrous lake sturgeon there as well. Hook a 100-pound sturgeon, and he decides how long you get to play with him.

Our missed fish could have been any of the oversized fish that reside there.

Because we had never stayed in a sleeper shanty and didn’t plan on it, we weren’t totally prepared. The lodge made that a nonissue and was helpful with a couple minor requests.

I still believe Fort Peck is the best ice fishing lake in America, but Lake of the Woods has got to be a close second. What sets it apart is that they have ice even when no one else does.

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Dad and I fishing the old-fashioned way.