Getty Images: Star Tribune via Getty Images

Lake of the Woods Ice Fishing: When to Go, What to Know

Lake of the Woods is destination spot for ice fishing.

Just because it's the dead of winter does not mean your outdoor adventures need to end. In fact, this time of year is the prefect time to take in ice fishing season in a destination spot like Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba. Covering nearly 1,700 square miles, it's one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. In the dead of winter, it's home to some of the best ice fishing on the planet.

And the great thing is, the local communities around the lake truly embrace the angling culture. Resorts, restaurants, and fishing guides go all out to help anglers find and catch the big one. There is even a series of marked ice roads and an ice bar that pop up every year to make for a truly unique fishing experience.

This is everything you need to know about Lake of the Woods ice fishing, from the best lures to use to the species you can target, and what licenses you'll need to fish there.

Fishing licenses and legality of crossing the border.

Remember that this lake falls in one U.S. state and two Canadian provinces. To legally fish, you will need the proper licenses for the area you are fishing. Minnesota sells multiple fishing licenses so you can choose one that best fits your situation and how long your trip will be. Their non-resident licenses break down as follows:

  • 14-day couple - $54
  • 24-hour - $14
  • 72-hour - $36
  • 7-day - $43
  • Family - $68
  • Individual - $51

If you plan to put up a shelter on the ice and leave it unattended during your trip, you will also need a shelter license for either $37 or $21 for a 7-day license. Those planning on trying spearing from a dark house will also need to purchase a $17 spearing license in addition to a regular fishing license. If you are planning to target walleye or trout, you will also need a trout stamp or a walleye stamp.

If you are planning to fish on the Canadian side, Ontario's license fees break down as follows:

  • Outdoors Card (required) - $8.57
  • 3-Year Sport Fishing license - $245.07
  • 3-Year Conservation fishing license - $155.13
  • 1-Year Sport Fishing - $81.69
  • 1-Year Conservation - $51.71
  • 1-Day Sportfishing (no Outdoors Card required) - $24.36
  • 8-Day Sportfishing - $53.38
  • 8-Day Conservation - $31.02

Only Buffalo Bay spills over into the province of Manitoba, but this is still a location that offers excellent ice fishing. Anglers wanting to try there can expect to pay $37.85 for a non-resident conservation license and $62.35 for a regular license.

If you plan to cross the mid-lake borders to the Canadian side, just be aware minimum size requirements and possession limits may vary greatly. Conservation officers regularly patrol both sides of the border in winter and they will ticket you for making a mistake just over the line.

Also keep in mind if you want to cross the border you must call Canadian Customs to get permission before crossing the line. Have all your relevant documents on hand like a passport, driver's license, etc... like you would if you were making a regular border crossing. Likewise, you'll have to check back in once back in the U.S. The official Lake of the Woods website has more information about crossing the border to fish in Canada.

Species to target on Lake of the Woods

Now that we've got the legal stuff out of the way, let's talk about the fun stuff. Mainly the many different species to target at this world class fishery. Lake trout are arguably one of the most popular targets. The lake regularly produces specimens in the 20-pound range. Lake of the Woods is also home to the Minnesota state record for lake whitefish at 13 pounds, 9 ounces. The lake also produced a 19-pound, 10-ounce burbot in 2016, which is also a state record.

However, the lake is probably best known for its walleye. It proudly proclaims itself the: "walleye capital of the world." Although it's also very well known for yellow perch, crappie, and northern pike. It's also a well known sauger fishery. The lake also holds some sturgeon for anyone looking for a real battle through the ice. This lake has a nice mixture of panfish you can fry up for dinner and big predators for anglers looking for a real trophy.

When is the best time to ice fish Lake of the Woods?

This is going to vary year to year, but the season usually starts around December 1 and runs through the end of March. The beginning of the season is usually the best time to go shallow in and around the bays before most fish start to move off into deeper water in the dead of winter. The middle part of December and early part of January usually mark the arrival of fish houses out on the lake. With that comes a need to fish deeper. Some of these shelters may be miles from the nearest shoreline because that's where the fish are holding. The immense size of Lake of the Woods makes locating the fish challenging, but we'll talk more about that later.

Many seasoned Lake of the Woods anglers agree, if there's still safe ice in March, it can be a great time to head out. Mostly because many fish are starting to prep for spring spawning by that point. That means they'll be fattening up and will be actively hunting for food. Although there is a risk of waiting too late to go because that later ice is not guaranteed. And most of the permanent shanties and sleeper fish houses are moved off the lake by that point for safety reasons, making it harder to take advantage of guide services. Check ice conditions and fishing reports online or by calling some local bait shops ahead of time before you go.

Lures and tactics.

Minnows are arguably king for multiple species on Lake of the Woods. Most anglers tip their jigs with live ones for walleyes, crappie, and perch. Although there are plenty who suspend them under tip ups for big northern pike too. Chubs and shiners are some of the more popular forms of live bait. Just remember that if you plan to visit the Canadian side that minnows and other forms of live bait cannot be used there. It's another fast way to get a ticket if a conservation officer catches you.

For artificial lures, most anglers stick with spoons and hard body jig baits with rattles. These tend to do well for species like lake trout. Although trophy walleyes are also landed using jigging spoons by anglers here every year. Rapala Rippin' Raps are especially popular on Lake of the Woods for walleyes.

Whatever species you plan to target, make sure you have a good flasher or fish finder where you can watch your lure. Underwater cameras are extremely valuable too. Especially when you start fishing those deeper depths. As we've mentioned before, Lake of the Woods is a huge body of water, and you will need all the help you can get to locate the fish and stay on them. And not having quality electronics is going to put you at a huge disadvantage.

Fish houses and guide services.

If you are planning just a casual fishing trip, or you do not want to spend a ton of time on the cold ice trying to find that perfect spot, the good news is Lake of the Woods has a bevy of guide services and heated fish houses that are available as rentals every season. Most of these fish houses are run as a side gig by the local resorts and feature all the amenities of home, a bathroom, kitchen, cozy living area, and even a TV, and WiFi. Most will also have a fishing cleaning area, helping make for an all-inclusive ice fishing adventure. Some even have beds to allow anglers to fish all day and even all night if they want. Sometimes the night bite can be quite hot in the winter months.

The great thing about renting one of these shelters is the spots are chosen by experienced guides. They also usually have easy access off the plowed roads. Although many resorts will give you are ride to and from the ice houses, making getting there a breeze.

Many resorts will offer the use of these shelters as part of their ice fishing packages. The daily rate depends on the type of shelter. The fancier it is, the more you can expect to pay. Day houses rented out for five to 12 hours can go from anywhere from $30 to $75. The overnight shelters are usually closer to $100 a night at a minimum per person.

One of the more interesting ice houses is the Igloo Bar, which is operated by Zippel Bay Resort. It's a heated, 1,000-square foot, fully operational bar with TVs and ice fishing stations built into the floor. Yep, you can knock back some cold ones with buddies while enjoying a freshly made pizza out on the ice!

Lake of the Woods truly has an ice fishing culture unlike anything else here in North America. No wonder it is a destination spot for anglers season after season.

Products featured on Wide Open Spaces are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels