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Lake of the walleyes -- fishing tales from Lake of the Woods

Rick Fransisco helps land a walleye for Pete Cich during a mid-January fishing excursion on Lake of the Woods near Baudette, Minn. Sam Cook/Forum News Service1 / 2
Walleye caught while fishing on Lake of the Woods. Sam Cook/Forum News Service2 / 2

BAUDETTE, Minn. -- In the darkness just before dawn, a ribbon of red taillights hovered over the frozen skin of Lake of the Woods. Like city commuters easing onto freeways, vehicles funneled onto ice roads in pickups and Suburbans and hefty tracked vehicles.

But they weren't commuting to work. They were going fishing. Lured by the promise of walleyes, and by the reputation of this massive Canadian-border lake, they were headed for ice-fishing shelters that dollop the lake like Monopoly houses.

Pete Cich was one of those anglers on this Wednesday in mid-January. The Alborn, Minn., angler has been coming here for 20 years, chasing the big lake's walleyes. Ten years ago, he bought a home on the Rainy River east of Baudette. Cich, 60, uses it as a base when he brings friends up here to fish, and he rents it out to other anglers as the Rainy River Retreat.

A retired railroad worker and a well-traveled walleye angler, Cich keeps coming back to this sprawling lake for one reason.

"I don't think there's better walleye fishing anywhere else in North America," he said.

Riding along with Cich atop 20 inches of ice were Jack Rendulich, 59; Rick Francisco, 59; Mark Helmer, 59; and myself. We were headed for a six-person fishing shelter operated by Snobe's Ice Fishing Adventures, one of many businesses that maintain shelters on Lake of the Woods. It's a thriving industry. On any given day, a few thousand shelters dot the vast expanse of ice. Many are lined up along plowed roads like little residential villages.

Half an hour after leaving the landing, we dropped jigs and tiny spoons tipped with minnows into 34 feet of water some 7½ miles from shore out of Four-Mile Bay. Jeremy Pearson of Snobe's had escorted us to the shack, a roomy affair that looked something like a caboose without wheels.

"How's fishing been?" Cich asked Pearson upon our arrival.

Pearson didn't answer right away, but finally spoke.

"It's been spotty," he said. "Some groups have been getting 10. Some have been getting four."

"All day?" Cich asked.

"All day," Pearson said.

But the shack was warm, and the minnows were frisky. We figured our chances were as good as anyone's. It wasn't long before Rendulich brought up a small sauger. Francisco followed with a 13-incher, and Rendulich supplemented our bucket of modest keepers with two more saugers. Most of them came from near the bottom on gold Northland Whistler jigs, Demon jigs and glow-in-the-dark Holie Angel spoons.

Good times

Walleye fishing was terrific last year on Lake of the Woods. This year has been slower, Cich said. Last winter, based on Department of Natural Resources creel surveys, anglers in Minnesota waters kept 353,203 pounds of walleyes, plus another 417,401 pounds last summer. That exceeded the DNR's annual "target harvest" of 450,000 pounds; that's the amount the agency believes anglers can keep without affecting the population. But because that figure is based on a six-year average, fisheries biologists aren't concerned about last year's bountiful catch.

"This is definitely something we pay attention to, and we're going to continue to monitor," Phil Talmage, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Baudette, told the Grand Forks Herald recently.

While anglers put in 1.6 million hours of fishing pressure on the ice last winter, that fell short of the 1.9 million hours logged in 2003-04.

The fishery is protected by a slot limit under which anglers must immediately release all walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches. They may keep one longer than 28 inches. The daily limit is eight walleyes and saugers in combination, but no more than four of them may be walleyes. The saugers, which resemble walleyes in appearance and -- in taste -- are a bonus for walleye anglers. They don't grow as large as walleyes, but, as Cich said, "The saugers make the fishing because you can get numbers. You're catching nice fish and numbers. You get spoiled a little bit."

More fishing time

Before he retired, Cich made about 10 trips a year to Lake of the Woods. Now retired, he hopes to be here more often. He's a great fishing companion, quick with a laugh and full of stories. When he laughs, his shoulders move up and down vigorously.

Cich is still seeking the Holy Grail of walleye anglers, his 30-incher. He's been close, at 29 inches, but every day he's out offers potential for fulfilling that dream.

He always comes up to Lake of the Woods for "early ice" in December, when the walleyes are most voracious. When possible, he makes his trips during the week rather than on weekends.

"There's no question in my mind, coming up during the week you get more fish than on the weekend," Cich said.

He thinks the pressure from so many anglers on the ice makes the fishing tougher.

Little by little, we kept putting fish in the bucket. We had a flurry at 11 a.m. and another about 1:30 p.m. when, for reasons nobody fully understands, the walleyes suddenly put on the feed bags. In the first frenzy, Rendulich hauled up a 19¼-inch walleye, and an 18-incher soon followed.

"We've got fish dinner now," Cich said.

Plenty for the pan

We would get another 19-incher and several more nice walleyes before the day was over. At one point, Helmer caught two fish at once, one on each of his two rods. We caught more than 20 fish and kept 15 for the frying pan. That isn't fast fishing by Lake of the Woods standards, but we weren't complaining.

Outside, a north wind buffeted our little shelter and the temperature was on its way from 10 above to 8 below zero that night. Fishing in Snobe's shack was almost like sitting in your family room -- a modest family room, granted. The floor was carpeted. There was a gas stove on which Cich heated up chicken noodle soup for lunch. Twice during the day, Pearson or someone else for Snobe's stopped by to see if we needed anything.

At intervals, the ice groaned, reminding us that we were sitting atop a dynamic natural entity.

It's easy to see why Cich and thousands of others keep coming back to Lake of the Woods, where resorts and fishing outfitters have made winter angling so comfortable and convenient, and where the big lake keeps growing tons of walleyes.

Word is that Lake of the Woods produced another bumper year class of walleyes in 2011, and we caught a few of the juveniles on this trip. No doubt Cich and thousands of others will want to come back and look up those fish in about three years.