Ice Fishing Destinations Out Here
These six bodies of water offer memorable fishing experiences once they ice over.
By Erin Brereton; Illustrations by Diana Terry
With propane-heated structures to sit in, vehicles to take you to and from civilization, and the chance to catch a whopper of a walleye, ice fishing can be an enjoyable getaway for even the most winter-adverse traveler.
While weather dictates when ice fishing season starts and ends, generally, you can expect to cast a jigging rod through an auger-cut hole from January to March in various regions—including some of the following ice fishing destinations.
LAKE OF THE WOODS
Many of the roughly 50 resorts in the area offer a full-service experience, transporting guests to a shanty each day in a heated trailer, according to Joe Henry, executive director of the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau.
“People think ice fishing is cold. Actually, you get into heated ice transportation, they transport you […] to the front door of your heated fish house. You literally take six steps into the 70-degree house. Most people take their jackets off. It’s like fishing in your living room,” Joe says.
Out-of-town anglers can also stay on the frozen freshwater lake, the state’s largest, overnight in a heated sleeper house outfitted with bunkbeds and an oven. You can also simply rent a hole to fish for sauger and walleye for $5 an hour at an igloo bar on the ice.
At night, stargazing offers a bonus for visitors: “We’re so far north; because you don’t have a lot of population around, it’s [really] dark, and that allows you to really see the sky,” Joe says. “The stars and planets just pop. It’s like something you’ve never seen.”
Non-resident license cost: $14 to $68; with stamp fees for some fish
Flooding has expanded this closed-basin lake from 40,000 to 160,000 acres in the past 25 years, taking over adjacent farmland. So, visitors may be fishing beside a barn sticking three feet out of the water or an iced-over combine, according to Tanner Cherney, outdoor media coordinator at Devils Lake Tourism.
Area resorts rent sonars and ice houses, which some anglers arrive at before sunrise to catch walleye, Tanner says.
“They transition to perch, which bites through the late afternoon,” he says. “As the sun starts to fade, people move back to walleyes. The unique thing about Devils Lake is all day long, there’s lots of excitement.”
The lake hosts two ice fishing competitions every winter: a youth event in February and a tournament in January that is known for large prizes, including cars.
“[That] draws about 4,000 to 5,000 people,” Tanner says. “A lot are fishing shoulder to shoulder.”
Non-resident license cost: $27 to $62
Because the 2,300-acre-surface-area reservoir is fairly shallow—about 18 feet at its deepest point—ample sunlight reaches the bottom, helping to boost its vegetation base. That’s led to a stable supply of rainbow trout, tiger muskies, cutbow trout, and other species, according to Denver Water Manager of Recreation Brandon Ransom.
“We’ve heard reports from Parks and Wildlife that fish grow up to 2 inches per month,” Brandon says. “They’re really stocky.”
Visitors should be prepared for extremely cold weather. Chilly temperatures, which have reached 51 below zero twice, at the reservoir prompt people to bring portable shelters.
Non-resident license cost: $16.75 to $96.75; potentially a $10 annual habitat stamp and $10.75 second rod stamp.
FORT PECK LAKE
Spanning 134 miles in length and reaching a maximum depth of 220 feet, Fort Peck Lake is Montana’s largest. The closest town, also named Fort Peck, has a population of less than 300. However, visitors can find ample food, fishing tackle, and lodging there, according to Carla Hunsley, executive director at Montana’s Missouri River Country Tourism Region.
The reservoir, which is surrounded by a wildlife refuge, may be remote, but it still draws people who want walleye, its most popular fish, according to Carla. Visitors can also pull large northern pike and lake trout up through the ice.
“You can see ice houses set up all over around the edges,” Carla says. “Even at night, people are checking their tip-ups.”
Non-resident license cost: $50 to $111
Winnebago is probably best suited for anglers looking for an active trip, according to Ryan Koenigs, senior fisheries biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“The fish are concentrated in very tight but large schools,” Ryan says. “You might see people cutting a hole and 10 to 15 minutes later, moving to another spot. Successful anglers have to be willing to put in the effort.”
He recommends anglers consult the Wisconsin Fishing Regulation pamphlet for daily bag limits for fish species being targeted. For example, there is no length limit for walleye and no possession limit for white bass. “Anglers literally can catch white bass by the pail-full once an active school is located,” Ryan says.
Lake Winnebago is also one of only two places in the U.S. for legal sturgeon spearing. Although 2020’s deadline to participate has passed, you can still stop by the lake in February to watch others take part in the sport.
Non-resident license cost: $10-$65, with additional $10-$14 stamp and $3-$65 sturgeon fees
LITTLE BAY DE NOC
This Upper Peninsula destination offers an opportunity to catch big water fish, such as walleye and salmon, that swim up to the protected bay from Lake Michigan, according to Robert Micheau, executive director of Visit Escanaba.
“Walleyes spawn at the head of the bay,” Robert says. “So, you get huge trophy ones.”
Anglers can book a cabin on the water in Gladstone or Escanaba, Michigan, and rent an ice fishing shack from local vendors. According to Robert, the ice is generally full from January to March.
“One of the most interesting things about ice fishing is you’re out on the water, which is frozen; you might see a truck drive by,” he says. “It’s almost as much about the experience as it is about catching fish.”
Non-resident license cost: $11 to $77
Ready to plan your ice fishing trip? Stop by your local Tractor Supply, where a friendly team member would be happy to help you choose all the gear you’ll need.
Erin Brereton has written about travel and other topics for magazines, newspapers, and other publications for more than 20 years.