So many fish, so little time. That might be one way to sum up Lake of the Woods that spans part of northernmost Minnesota and part of the Province of Ontario into Canada. The lake covers almost a million acres, with about 300,000 of them in Minnesota. It’s over 70 miles long, and has almost 70,000 miles of shoreline, making it the sixth largest freshwater lake located in the U.S., not counting the Great Lakes. It’s deep, and most of the best fishing in the lake is anywhere from 15 to 35 feet deep, depending on species and the season.
The fish remain uncounted, but anglers’ full creels prove the fact that the lake is loaded with walleye, sauger, Northern pike, sturgeon, perch, crappie, muskies and smallmouths. The most popular fish is pretty easy to figure out, even before you wet a hook. The “Welcome to the Walleye Capital of the World” signs are a pretty good hint. The enormity of the lake offers many different ways and depths to catch walleye. Locals break the fish into two groups, river walleye and lake walleye, because while some walleye migrate, data indicates there are huge groups of fish that never leave the river or the lake. No matter how you classify your walleye here, they all fish pretty much the same. Minnows, leeches, shrimp and nightcrawler are good baits and when it comes to artificial lures, a large variety are effective, with most of the best being gold in color.
Walleye are easiest to catch jigging in the shallower portions of the lake in the spring, then move to deeper water where you can catch them slow trolling with spinning rigs up in the warmer months. If you are traveling to this lake from a more southern location, keep in mind that “warmer months” here average around 56 degrees. Reefs, rock shoals and sandy bottoms are all good for walleye. The real key to finding them is to follow the shiners. The fish go where the food is. In the coldest months, ice fishing is popular for walleye and sauger. Sauger look similar to walleye, but they don’t get as large. Most of the time, when targeting one fish, you’ll find the others in the same locations.
Ice fishing season is usually from early December through March. Hotspots on the lake are lined with ice fishing sheds of all shapes and sizes. Northern Pike bite all year long. These fish grow huge here, many of them weighing over 15 or 20 pounds. They can be caught with artificial lures or by jigging live bait. The pike are also popular targets in early spring when they are spawning in somewhat shallower areas of the lake.
Smallmouth bass season is open all year long, and this is one species that is often caught in shallower areas. The bass are heavily populated in the Rainy River and huge Four Mile Bay area. Shallow rock structure is usually what holds these fish, although they will roam and follow schools of baitfish when they get hungry. Smallmouth are not targeted as much as some species, but there are three areas that offer really good fishing. The Rainy River and Four Mile Bay offer a variety of weed beds, rocky ledges and some current breaks that are good smallmouth hiding spots. The area where smaller tributaries enter the river and bridge crossings with pilings and rock bases are also hotspots for smallmouth. Crank baits and jigs are good producers as far as bait. In the Big Traverse Bay itself, rock areas are the key to holding fish. The Northwest Angle area has countless islands, bays, weed beds and rock jetties that hold smallmouths.
One other species deserves mention. Crappie on Lake of the Woods can reach up to 14 inches. They are usually fished for in the winter months in deeper water where the fish stay in suspended schools near wads of baitfish. Despite lots of fish, the lake doesn’t have a lot of nearby residents.
The County seat in Lake of the Woods County is Baudette, which has a population of less than 5,000. The waters of Rainy River, that feed into the lake, offer easy access to the river and lake at seven different boat landings on the Minnesota border. The most popular public access is at Wheelers Point at the mouth of the river. You can find almost anything you need from campsites, toilet facilities and a marina at Minnesota’s Zippel Bay State Park. That park also manages the nearby Beltrami Island State Forest campgrounds for those looking for a more rugged trip.
One unique thing here is that part of the state is actually only accessible by boat, unless you cross the Canadian border. The lake actually separates a small land area of Minnesota called Northwest Angle from the rest of the United States. The lake also has more than 14,552 islands, ranging from less than an acre to hundreds of acres. Some of the more noted island landmarks in Minnesota waters include Oak, Little Oak, Normal, Garden, Bridges, Pine and Knight islands. One word of serious caution to anglers here. Make sure you are aware of fishing seasons, regulations and access information, especially concerning border crossing between the U.S. and Canada on and off the water when fishing here.