An Insider’s Guide to Fishing Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods
People travel from all over the world to fish Lake of the Woods, shared between Minnesota and Canada. It’s one of the region’s best fishing lakes for a variety of reasons, and it’s a picturesque location to spend a few days or a week or more to explore the waters. Lake of the Woods is broken up into three different areas or fisheries: the Rainy River, Big Traverse Bay and the Northwest Angle. Here’s a guide to the three separate sections and the top fish you can find in each.
The Rainy River
The Rainy River portion of Lake of the Woods is the international boundary line between the United States and Canada. The picturesque river flows 60 miles from Rainy Lake straight west to the town of Baudette, Minnesota, and then turns north for another 12 miles until it empties into Lake of the Woods. Much of the fishing takes place in a stretch from the mouth of the river to about 30 miles upstream. That is 30-plus miles of a fertile, multispecies fishery suitable for most fishing boats.
The river is famous for its spring and fall walleye runs. In the spring, walleyes run up the Rainy to spawn. With a good percentage of the walleyes in Big Traverse Bay being concentrated in the river, fishing can be epic. The walleye season is open on the Minnesota side of the lake and river most of the year, which lends itself to opportunities for monster walleyes as well as large numbers.
In the fall, the walleyes follow the emerald shiners who run up the river to do some spawning of their own. This traditional run lends itself to some great fishing among the beautiful fall colors.
There is a nice resident population of walleyes who call the river home all year long, which the locals know well. Some folks who live in the area have fresh fish all year long and never hit the lake.
Another fish growing in popularity is the Lake Sturgeon. Reaching weights of 100 pounds, these monsters are very prevalent in the Rainy. Anglers typically use a bit heavier equipment to land these dinosaurs, but many walleye anglers have spent time playing out these hard fighting fish on walleye gear. A typical setup for sturgeon is a two ounce sinker with a circle hook loaded with night crawlers with a lead between the sinker and hook of six to 12 inches. Cast out on the up current slope of a hole and get ready.
The Rainy also boasts strong populations of northern pike and smallmouth bass, although most anglers don’t fish for them. Charter captains complain some days they cannot tune their crank baits casting off the back of their docked charter boats in the river because the pike are so prevalent and keep hitting them.
Big Traverse Bay
The main lake basin in Lake of the Woods is known as Big Traverse Bay. This body of water is about 20 miles north to south by 30 miles east to west. This is big water loaded with fish. Millions of walleye and sauger call this four-season fishery home. Fish are attracted to the miles of “no man’s land” or mud flats. Roaming schools of bait fish and all sorts of critters from crawfish, blood worms and freshwater shrimp hold and sustain large numbers of fish.
Resorts cater to both open water and ice anglers. In the winter months, thousands of fish houses spread out across the miles of ice that reaches over 36 inches thick. Go from a heated resort to heated ice transportation to a heated fish house set at 70 degrees, and the holes already drilled ready for action. Anglers haul in walleye, saugers, jumbo perch, eelpout and tulibees from the comfort of a fish house or even sleeper fish house.
The water is very clean. Because of feeder rivers, streams and creeks flowing from the south, the Big Traverse Bay’s water gets a “stain” or “tint” to it. This stained water actually helps fishing. Rather than having to go after walleyes during low light hours or at night, the bite is very good throughout the day. This makes for exciting days and certainly helps with the sleep.
In March through the ice, northern pike enthusiasts flock to the big water. There is a saying: “In order to catch a trophy fish, you must fish trophy waters.” Lake of the Woods certainly fits the bill. Trophy pike fishing on Lake of the Woods is fantastic. Big northern pike reaching over 40 inches are prevalent and are staged in front of spawning areas. This is the one time of the year pike group up. The go-to method is a tip up with a live sucker minnow or a dead smelt or ciscoe on a quick strike rig.
The open water season goes from April to November. Charter boats catering to groups up to 6 anglers line the docks at local resorts. Licensed charter captains take groups out targeting walleyes. With years of experience and by networking with other captains on the water, the days are typically very successful reeling in good numbers of fish by jigging to pulling crawler harnesses to downrigging with crankbaits.
In the Northwest Angle section of Lake of the Woods, anglers fish among hundreds of islands, reefs, eagles, bears, deer and some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. The Northwest Angle is like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area without restrictions. Some resorts in the area feature rustic log cabins in the woods, while others are modern villas with high speed Internet. Regardless of your preference, the fishing is almost as good as the adventure. Here, walleye are the main fare. Bring your own boat or hire a guide who can take you around the Minnesota side of the Angle or 20 miles up into Ontario to places the visitor would be turned around 10 times over.
Some anglers come to the Northwest Angle for the untapped musky fishery. Many musky pros call Lake of the Woods the best musky fishery in North America. With a strong population of fish, a variety of cover and the waters loaded with bait, this is a haven for the top of the food chain. Every island, bay, weed line or underwater rock pile could be holding fish.
Planning a Visit
The lodging on Lake of the Woods can suit most everyone, whether you prefer hotel and lodge rooms to cabins or beautiful log cabin villas. You can find rustic or modern accommodations with amenities like pool or swimming beach for the kids, if needed. You can cook your own meals or let the resorts make it easy for you.
Although located in the north woods of Minnesota where there may be as many deer as people, finding a variety of good food is not hard. A fresh fish fry or two should be on the list. There is nothing like fresh walleye, fried potatoes, beans and fresh bread. Some resorts cook up your day’s catch and provide all of the fixings.
Fishing is what brings most visitors to the Lake of the Woods, but there is a lot to do to mix it up. Swim in the lake off of the sandy beaches of Zippel Bay State Park or enjoy small-town America in Baudette for a day of shopping. Notice the variety and local flare at the many small shops while you sip a latte from a coffee shop. Check out the history museum and the renovated train depot, or take in a round of golf or hit a bucket of balls at Oak Harbor Golf Club.
When you come up, bring your appetite for fresh walleye, a good camera and a hankering for adventure.
For more information on lodging, fishing and other activities at Lake of the Woods, go to www.lakeofthewoodsMN.com.