The arrival of January and February in Minnesota triggers a parade of ice houses to favorite fishing spots statewide.
Seeking everything from the hallowed walleye and easy panfish to northern pike and eelpout, about 10 percent of Minnesota’s 1.5 million license-holding anglers head back to the lakes once they freeze. They can turn an empty, snow-covered bay into a winter village overnight, complete with houses, makeshift streets, lighting and laughter that often comes with this social winter sport.
All You Need For Ice Fishing
Never tried ice fishing? Don’t let fanatics, winter weather or the mind-boggling array of gear intimidate you. At its roots, ice fishing ranks among the more basic outdoor sports and can accommodate any skill level. Considering you don’t need a boat to get on the water, winter fishing can be more accessible, too.
“I think we’ve made ice fishing more complicated than it has to be,” said John Fylpaa, who introduces kids and families to ice fishing each winter at Lake Bemidji State Park. You can layer up for warmth, borrow a hand-operated auger and try the sport with only a fishing pole, a lure and a 5-gallon bucket to sit on. If you prefer more comfort, Minnesota excels in that arena, too, with some of the nation’s top suppliers of ice fishing shelters and a full gamut of gear.
If you're going through a resort or guide service, most of your necessities should be covered already. Otherwise, be sure to bring at least these essentials:
Tip ups with line
What To Know Before Getting Started
You can try ice fishing for free
Every January, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hosts Take a Kid Ice Fishing weekend, when residents can fish without a license when accompanied by a child age 15 or under. On that weekend, select state parks provide all the gear and coach families through everything from drilling holes to keeping them from freezing over. With the state park vehicle permit required to enter the park, no additional fishing license is required at state parks year-round. Visit the DNR website for details.
Layer up wisely
No one will have fun if they’re freezing—especially kids. Be sure to dress in layers, including a base layer, warm fleece and a shell that can block the wind and keep you warm. Consider pocketing a few air-activated hand and foot warmers in case they’re needed. Fylpaa suggests not bundling up fully until you’ve walked across a lake and toted your gear, which can work up a sweat. Once you settle in to fish, that’s when you’ll want to pull the warmest layers on.
You can sleep on the lake, too
With modern luxuries, renting an ice house with family or friends can be as homey as a warm, well-appointed cabin—think carpeting, TVs, couches and bunks—that just happens to have strategic holes in the floor. Lake Mille Lacs is particularly famous for its luxury houses, but northern Minnesota’s Lake Winnibigoshish, Red Lake and Lake of the Woods also are big draws for ice fishing fans.
You can hire an expert
Minnesota has hundreds of fishing guides that not only know the best lakes and best-bet spot to fish for specific species, but can coach you through the ins and outs of ice fishing, fillet your catch, and let you try some of the best equipment and gadgets.
Ice Fish in a Heated Fish House
Imagine sitting comfortably on the edge of a bunk inside your heated fish house, sipping schnapps and playing cards with your fishing buddies. Here, the toughest decision is whether to put your minnow on a jig, or a bare hook. (Or, since one angler can legally drop a line in two holes at once, fish one hole each way. Problem solved.)
“Ice fishing is no longer cold,” says Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. These days, he says, you can enjoy an authentic fishing experience that’s almost entirely absent of the freezing temperatures that make it all possible. “Stay at a nice resort, eat a delicious breakfast, take heated ice transportation to your fish house. When you arrive, the fish house is on fish, the thermostat is set at 70 degrees, and the holes are drilled and cleaned. You’re ready to fish.”
Where To Go Ice Fishing in Minnesota
More than 150 Minnesota resorts and guide businesses rent ice-fishing houses to visitors, or include it as part of a lodging/ice fishing package, and the range of options is simply incredible. Rentable fish houses range from simple four-hole day houses to elaborate “sleeper” cabins complete with a stove, stereo, bunks and bathroom. Fish houses of all types are typically heated, often with pre-drilled holes and bait and tackle provided, including “rattle reels” that let you know when you’ve got a bite. The resorts and guides take care to place their fish houses where fishing is best, often moving the houses over the season as the hot spots change.
Lake Mille Lacs
Lake Mille Lacs is particularly famous for its luxury sleeper houses, but you’ll find all manner of fish houses on the “Big Pond” of central Minnesota. Each winter, thousands of fish houses set up on its frozen surface, transforming the lake’s vast, 200-mile expanse of ice into a loosely connected chain of bustling, temporary towns—some big enough to offer trash pickup, street signs, plowed roads and even pizza delivery to their seasonal residents and guests. Whether you’re spending just a few hours on the ice or a whole weekend, plumbing the icy depths of Mille Lacs for bass, northern pike and pan fish alongside thousands of fellow anglers might just become your next winter tradition.
Lake of the Woods
In far northwest Minnesota along the Canadian border, Lake of the Woods offers a more off-the-beaten-path experience to its visitors. Although Lake of the Woods hosts somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 fish houses during the season, the lake’s massive size easily dwarfs any sense of overcrowding: Not including the Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods is the largest inland freshwater lake in the lower 48.
The fish in Lake of the Woods are incredibly active all year round. Even in the heart of winter, many anglers have no trouble landing their daily limit of walleye, saugers, northern pike or eelpout, plus the occasional jumbo perch or tulibee. Resorts and other businesses rent ice fishing houses out of Baudette, Warroad and Angle Inlet, a tiny resort town on the northwest corner of the lake that can only be reached by driving through Canada (or by snowmobile over the frozen lake). One resort on Lake of the Woods—Zippel Bay Resort out of Williams—even operates its own Igloo Bar, with beer, wine, mixed drinks, a simple menu, and the option of jigging for walleye from your bar stool.
While Lake of the Woods and Mille Lacs are two of Minnesota’s largest ice fishing hubs, opportunity abounds across the entire state. That’s the beauty of ice fishing in the land of 10,000 frozen lakes—no matter where you are, there’s almost always an active winter fishery nearby (and a friendly, local guide to help you find it).
Even if you don’t ice fish, you can still celebrate this Minnesota tradition at one of many festivals around the state—including at the world’s largest ice fishing contest, the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Extravaganza. Hosted each January on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay, the tournament pulls in 10,000 anglers from around the world to compete for more than $150,000 in cash and prizes.
Other notable fests include:
Sportsmen’s Club Annual Ice Fishing Derby in Sleepy Eye
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