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Back in the clear

AUDETTE, Minn. -- Ask just about anyone who makes their living along the south shore of Lake of the Woods, and they'll tell you last winter wasn't much fun.

AUDETTE, Minn. -- Ask just about anyone who makes their living along the south shore of Lake of the Woods, and they'll tell you last winter wasn't much fun.

Right before freeze-up, a storm with northwest winds up to 50 mph stirred the lake into a murky froth, and conditions didn't improve for several weeks. The turbid water shut off the fish, which either moved elsewhere or couldn't see well enough to hit anglers' jigs.

Either way, anglers struggled to catch walleyes and saugers on one of North America's premier winter fisheries. For fishing guides and others who work in the ice fishing business, the winter became a real grind.

"It was brutal," said Larry Sorenson of Williams, Minn., a charter boat driver and winter fishing guide for Ballard's Resort, located near the mouth of the Rainy River north of Baudette. "It cleared up eventually, but the fish didn't show up."

Different story this year. As another winter season hits full swing, the murky water that everyone feared might return is nowhere to be found. Cold weather early in December created near-perfect freezing conditions, and the big lake already had a foot of ice in many areas by Dec. 10.

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Best of all, the fish are biting, though some days are better than others.

"We're really excited, because we've got 11 to 12 inches of ice, and the clarity" is excellent, said Danelle Hovde, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. "At the St. Paul Ice Show, there was a lot of talk -- how was the water? Anglers were nervous as well. Mother Nature was nice to us. You couldn't ask for better ice and clarity. You can see the jig 10 feet down."

Sense of relief

Sorenson of Ballard's says he's relieved that this winter won't be a repeat of last year.

"Look at this -- this is beautiful," he said Dec. 10, peering down the hole of an ice fishing house he'd just set up in about 20 feet of water north of Pine Island. "Aqua Vus [underwater cameras] might even work this year.

"Last year, you couldn't even see to the bottom of the hole."

The previous day, Sorenson had tested the waters and released a 29-inch walleye along with several smaller fish. A group fishing another house estimated they'd landed 150 fish over the course of the day.

That's an extreme case, of course, but early reports make last winter easy to forget. Last winter, Ballard's eventually pulled its fleet of about 40 rental houses nearly 20 miles north toward Garden Island just to put guests on fish.

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That's a long ride by track van, but it was better than the alternative: empty buckets that should have been filled with walleyes and saugers.

Making the best of it

Nick Painovich, a longtime resort owner who runs Zippel Bay Resort north of Williams, Minn., said business last winter was pretty good even with the dirty water and slower fishing. The big difference, he said, was the decline in drive-up traffic from anglers who bring up their own houses and access the lake on the resort's plowed ice roads.

Painovich says he'd seen the water real cloudy about 25 years ago, but nothing like last winter. The storm that created the conditions was really something, he says, and water clarity didn't start improving until late February.

"I knew we were in trouble when I saw that wind -- up to 50 mph," Painovich said. "It cleaned all the vegetation out of the bay. I've never seen a wind do that much damage.

"But that's not an issue this year," he added. "The lake capped over, and Mother Nature can't get to it any more."

Fish numbers good

Lack of fish never was a problem. Anglers so far this winter have tied into numbers of 15- to 17-inch walleyes, the result of a banner hatch in 2001. According to Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, the sauger population's pretty good, too.

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A smaller cousin to the walleye, saugers don't begin showing up in numbers until anglers move into 25 or 30 feet of water. When that happens, good numbers of 14- to 15-inch saugers will be waiting. Fish in that size group accounted for about 13 percent of the sauger catch in fall population surveys, Heinrich said.

"Having a nice group of fish like that being 13 percent of your catch is pretty high," Heinrich said. "We've got a nice slug of (saugers) that are up over 11 inches right now."

Meanwhile, Heinrich said, saugers from a big hatch last spring now are 7 to 8 inches long and will be pestering anglers throughout the winter.

They might be annoying, but they're good insurance for the future.

Business as usual

Anglers heading for Lake of the Woods probably shouldn't expect to encounter 150-fish days, but everyone this year seems to be encountering at least some success.

"I think everybody is just a lot more relaxed because we're out there catching fish," said Gary Moeller, co-owner of Ballard's Resort. "I know everybody had that fear of last winter repeating itself, and I think everybody is thankful right now we're catching fish, and conditions are decent. It's kind of a more business-as-usual winter instead of scraping and scratching and wondering what you're going to do next."

Loren Keizer of Fargo was one of three anglers who made the early December trek to fish the same Ballard's house that had kicked out 150 walleyes the day before his arrival. Right on schedule, though, a low-pressure system with clouds, mist and a stiff east wind blew in about the same time Keizer and his partners got on the ice.

They still landed about 20 walleyes up to 19 inches each of the two days, but the initial report likely inflated expectations.

"Fishing was still good in my opinion, though we all know what the bite was like the day before," he said.

Bob Barnard and Clint Diefenthaler made the 2½-hour trek from Orr, Minn., to Lake of the Woods for a day trip Dec. 11. Their best action was morning and late in the afternoon, and Diefenthaler says he lost a walleye at the hole that likely weighed at least 8 pounds.

"That was the nicest batch of fish I've ever caught, and I started fishing up here 18 years ago," Diefenthaler said.

By the numbers

The DNR's Heinrich said he's not surprised by the walleye reports so far. Even with last winter's slow fishing, anglers kept about 115,000 pounds of walleyes. That would have been impressive 10 years ago, but a string of phenomenal fishing winters raised the bar pretty high.

Before last year, anglers had kept an average of 256,000 pounds of walleyes and 280,000 pounds of saugers the previous five winters.

If present trends continue, catches this winter likely will surpass 200,000 pounds for both walleyes and saugers. Heinrich said the DNR's winter creel survey to measure fishing activity was set to begin this weekend.

"This weekend is going to be when things really kick off," he said. "Right now, it looks good."

In a part of the world that depends on ice fishing, that's good news indeed.

On the Web: Lake of the Woods Tourism: www.lakeofthewoodsmn.com . Ballard's Resort: www.ballardsresort.com . Zippel Bay Resort: www.zippelbay.com . Reach BRAD DOKKEN at (800) 477-6572, ext. 148, or bdokken@gfherald.com .

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