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Woodland Trails: Signs of a 'real' winter

We heard the walleye were hitting so when the flag popped up on the tip up just after it was set ...well can say things got exciting. Walleye are probably the most sought after fish that swims here in the northland. Over $10 a fillet at many restaurants. Just about as expensive at grocery stores. When caught on frozen lakes in the middle of winter ...... can it get any better?

But is this going to be a real winter? Ya think Al Gore was wrong about all that global warming talk? I don't know about you but I'm seeing some sure signs of a real winter this year. Already two heavy snowfalls by the first week of December. Temperatures well below zero already. I've found that the snow is deep enough to make winter pheasant hunt a good workout and ice fishing more of a chore than in years past.

December 7 was my son Josh's birthday and we celebrated by heading to a local walleye lake to chase a few "eyes" around. He got a new portable ice shack, the X2, for his birthday along with a new portable heater. He got some hot new lures and we planned on meeting his uncle Dick Bennett of Hudson on the lake around 6:30 that morning. If all went well we would then eat a few walleye. What could possibly go wrong?

The cold weather the last couple of weeks had great ice forming before all the snow came. Anglers were finding 3 to 5 inches of safe ice that first week of December. I was hearing reports of a good early walleye bite, crappies sucking up minnows and nice pike chomping on sucker minnows. And then all the snow came. Although all the snow looked beautiful it hurts early ice development!

Snow acts as an insulator. When good ice is forming it needs cold weather and then quickly forms. But snow is heavy when it covers a lake. Snow weighs down the ice and forces water up through cracks, crevices and augured ice fishing holes. But when too much snow comes ice formation is waterlogged. I ice forms from underneath last nights ice. When there is an insulating blanket of snow covering it development is slowed. But it's the lake water under the snow that ends up on top of the ice that causes all the problems. You seem to be walking on good snow and then you break through and find deep slush and water.

When your shack, portable or permanent is being used you will often have water being forced right up through your fishing hole. That can flood you out. When you are trying to walk over the snow and break through and hit slush and water every step is labored. Ice forms on your boots and if they are not 100% waterproof you are going to have cold wet feet. If your child takes a tumble they are cold wet and crabby for good reason.

I'm getting reports from Lake Mill Lacs that all the walking anglers have left broken rough trails on the ice. Once the snow is broken through the slush can make it too the surface it will freeze in humps, lumps and bumps making normal walking a chore. You are slipping and sliding and falling down on your keister every few steps. I heard of one guy on Mill Lacs who walked out ¼ mile to fish and fell down a half dozen times just getting there.

On our first outing we found all the reports were true. There was about 7 inches of pretty good ice and lots of snow, slush and water on top pretty good ice. Luckily the trail we went out on was not being used too much so it was pretty smooth. We quickly dropped a few tip-ups hooked with shiners and then proceeded to get the X2 and brother Dicks Otter Cabin set up. Then we had our first flag on the first tip up I set.

Josh was on it quickly and we all watched as the fish slowly pulled out line. It had to be a walleye. The sun had only been up a few minutes. First hand reports had us right on a hot spot. Josh waited a bit and when the fish didn't stop he set the hook. After a nice fight the first white tipped tail walleye was flopping on the ice. The problem was that it was just under legal size limits so back it went.

Then Josh tried to get the heater working but he was having problems and frustration from severe cold set in. After a few small ice canisters went flying across the ice from #1 son's new shack we managed to get brother Dicks backup portable heater lit and working.

But I had an appointment and head to leave after a couple hours. I never missed a thing. The guys had one more flag pop on that same tip-up but the fish was lost. Of course Josh said it felt small. It had to be another sub legal walleye. Although the guys stayed out for a few more hours they had no other action although Josh said he spotted a few more fish on the flasher.

I'm still getting reports of friends taking some nice fish from many lakes. Things should be pretty good on Mille Lacs this weekend! But caution is the key word. Although there is safe ice on most of back bays and smaller narrow lakes the bigger lakes had open water not long ago. Some lakes around Hwy. 8 have around 7 inches of pretty good ice on them but no one is driving out as I write this report. Lakes further north have more ice and reports from Ely have ice anglers being cautious.

I can remember years when we didn't get on good ice until after the New Years and times when fish were pulled from frozen iced in backwater bays around Thanksgiving. So the key word right now is safety. Everyone knows fist ice is often the best time to get out, especially for walleyes but safety is always the key! No fish dinner is worth a swim in the lake in December!