Brad Dokken: Lake of the Woods produces another surprise ice fishing catch

Jan. 19—News of another surprise catch on Lake of the Woods hit my inbox Wednesday afternoon, when I opened the weekly update from Sportsman's Oak Island Lodge on Minnesota's Northwest Angle.

According to the lodge's fishing report, a fisherman was targeting walleyes with 6-pound-test line Jan. 13 in one of the resort's rental houses when "a tug pulled on his line."

That's when things got interesting.

"Thoughts immediately started racing," the report indicated. "Is it a monster walleye? Pike? Sturgeon? After an hour fight and spooling his reel twice into a knot, (the big fish) came up the hole."

Surprisingly enough, the catch was a 48-inch muskie.

The muskie, which was released after a quick photo in the fish house, is the second to be reported this winter through the ice on Lake of the Woods. (And that's not to say there haven't been others that went unreported.) Over the New Year's weekend, 10-year-old Leah Saffert of Rice Lake, Wisconsin,

pulled up a 50-inch muskie while tip-up fishing for northern pike in the Zippel Bay

area on the south shore of Lake of the Woods with her dad, Jamie, and brother, Scott.

The behemoth fish tipped the scales at 34 pounds.

A few days later,

a fisherman reeled up a lake trout — another uncommon catch for the south shore of Lake of the Woods — also in the Zippel Bay area.

Landing a muskie — or even a lake trout, for that matter — in the Northwest Angle area isn't quite as unusual as catching either species along the south shore of Lake of the Woods, but it's still noteworthy. Muskies are a popular target for many anglers who fish the Northwest Angle and the Ontario side of the big lake in open water, but catching one through the ice is fairly uncommon.

It just goes to show — you never know.

In an effort to learn more about the prevalence of muskies along the south shore, I reached out to Brett Nelson, the large lake specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minnesota. We weren't able to connect in time for my story on Saffert's big muskie, but Nelson got back to me late last week with some informative insights about muskies on the south shore and why the toothy predators are more abundant on the Ontario side of the lake.

"As far as our sampling goes, we typically see one every few years in the fall gill net survey," Nelson said in an email. "As to location, it tends to vary where they show up."

It's not always north of Garden Island, that long, narrow island at the southern end of the Northwest Angle, he said.

The DNR hasn't sampled any muskies during its spring northern pike assessments along the south shore, Nelson says, but the survey takes place right at ice-out and may be too early to effectively sample them.

Very likely, Nelson says, the habitat for muskies is "more diverse and apparently more favorable" for muskies at the Northwest Angle and on the Ontario side of the lake than it is in Big Traverse Bay, the open expanse that comprises the bulk of U.S. waters.

"Anecdotally, I think south shore muskie are more common than what appears on the surface," Nelson said. "Obviously, there is much higher targeted angler effort at the Northwest Angle, so that plays into it as well. Moreover, we occasionally hear reports of anglers catching them down south, but many of these catches/observations go unreported (so likely underrepresented)."

Regardless, such unique catches sure make for fun fish stories when they happen.

Organizers of the

40th Annual Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department Ice Fishing Tournament

will decide Saturday — Jan. 20 — whether the ice is safe enough to hold the fishing portion of the popular winter event.

This year's tournament is scheduled for 1 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, on Six-Mile Bay of Devils Lake. But with the late freeze-up and unseasonably warm weather up until the recent cold snap, organizers say they want to be sure the ice is thick enough to hold the thousands of anglers who typically converge to try their luck for a few hours of fishing.

"Obviously, as a fire department, we're here for safety," said Cory Meyer, assistant fire chief and one of four co-chairs on the tournament committee. "We're not going to put anybody in danger, but that being said, we've also been checking conditions and things are looking good."

That decision will be made Saturday.

Tournament organizers canceled the fishing portion of the popular event in 2021 because of sketchy ice conditions that resulted from unusually warm weather.

If the fishing portion of the event is canceled, all of the other activities will go on as scheduled beginning Thursday evening, Jan. 25, in the Devils Lake Memorial Building, Meyer said, and the fishing prizes, which include a 2024 Chevy Colorado, will be awarded during the raffle drawing, which gets underway at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27.

The tournament and raffle is the fire department's primary fundraiser and all 24,000 of the $25 tickets are long gone, Meyer said. This year's tournament features more than $325,000 in prizes, including the raffle grand prize of a 2024 Ford F-150 pickup.

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