Adventures in crappie country: Heading north over the Canada border for fishing on Lake of the Woods
LAKE OF THE WOODS, Ontario -- The Canada Customs officer at the other end of the line somewhere in another part of the country didn't quite know what to think when Allen Edman said he was taking a crew of fishermen from Minnesota's Northwest Angle into Ontario in a Sno-Bear.
"A snow what?" the official wondered. "Is it like a snowmobile?"
Well, kind of, Edman said.
But, then again ...
"I had a hard time explaining what we were traveling in," Edman of Grand Forks said after clearing us through the phone booth at Young's Bay on the Northwest Angle. The shelter serves as a remote customs station for both the United States and Canada.
Hit the button with the Canadian flag when entering Canada and the American flag to enter the United States.
Checking anglers through the phone-booth customs station goes with the territory for Edman, 38, a life science teacher at Central Middle School in East Grand Forks, Minn., who grew up fishing, hunting and guiding on the Northwest Angle, where his parents ran a resort on Lake of the Woods.
Edman, who began guiding when he was 12, still spends his summers guiding on the big lake and weekends in winter as his schedule permits. He recently started fishing in a Sno-Bear, a tracked vehicle made in West Fargo that allows anglers to ice fish from the heated comfort of the cab.
A flip of the switch lowers the vehicle to ice level, and four lids quickly remove to reveal holes in the floor.
Think of it as a mobile fish house on tracks. During winters like this with a lot of snow, the Sno-Bear shines.
"I've done the portable and the snowmobile guiding, and this has been a big step forward," Edman said. "It's kind of like my winter guide boat, running on weekends up here at Lake of the Woods. It's been a real nice deal: Turn up the thermostat, keep nice and warm and move from spot to spot. It's as easy as reeling up and moving.
"Now, especially, you've got to have tracks, and you've got to be mobile to keep on the fish."
The plan on this late February Monday was to venture by Sno-Bear about 15 miles into Ontario waters in pursuit of crappies, those tasty slabs that have become increasingly popular among Lake of the Woods anglers who don't mind venturing off the beaten path and ice fishing in Canada.
Walleyes might rule on Lake of the Woods, but crappies and lake trout are just two of the other species available on the Ontario side of the lake. With its abundance of tree-studded islands and varied habitat, the Ontario portion of Lake of the Woods presents a striking contrast to the wide-open expanse of Big Traverse Bay in Minnesota waters.
Joining me on this Ontario adventure, the first full day of an annual trip to Oak Island, were Jim Stinson of Lockport, Manitoba, Jason Laumb of Grand Forks and his dad, Tom Laumb of Berthold, N.D. We'd spend most of the four-day trip chasing walleyes and saugers via snowmobiles and portables, but we joined Edman for a day to give the crappies a try.
Crappie reports had been spotty, and despite a YouTube video trending in Lake of the Woods fishing circles that showed an angler suck a crappie up through the ice with his auger -- I'm not making this up -- the fish weren't exactly jumping out of the holes.
No worries, we'd try a few spots and keep moving until we found crappies. It took a few moves, but Edman eventually put us on crappies off a well-traveled point.
Getting the fish to bite often was a different story.
We'd mark the crappies on our depth finders -- red blips suspended a foot or 2 off the bottom in 35 to 40 feet of water -- and they'd rise to our small jigging spoons tipped with minnow heads.
Then, just about the time you'd expect to feel the bite, they'd turn up their noses and swim away.
When they did bite, the quality helped offset the lack of quantity. Several of the crappies flirted with 14 inches, blue- and gold-colored dinner plates with fins and papery mouths.
No fishing trip is complete without a good story, and Edman shared a dandy about the Valentine's Day in 2009 when he popped the question to his now-wife, Mary.
An Illinois native, Mary had relatives on Oak Island. They'd been dating several months, and Edman wanted to make a splash with his marriage proposal.
That's exactly what he did, using a ballpoint pen to stuff the engagement ring into the stomach of one of the fish they'd caught that day. Mary's an outdoorsy type and knows her way around a filleting knife, Edman says, so he figured it wasn't too much of a stretch.
Leave it to a Northwest Angle fishing guide to propose in a fish-cleaning house.
"She cut open the fish and had to check the stomach," Edman said. "I could see the ring was in there, and when she cut it open, she shot me a look like I had shot her dog or something.
"It was amazing. I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me."
She said yes, and the ring soon was on her finger -- fish slime and all.
"She didn't care at all -- filleting knife in one hand and ring on the other," Edman said. "Ninety percent of women would never have gone for that proposal."
We'd gotten our fill of crappie fishing by late afternoon, but there was still time to switch gears and try for walleyes.
Blue sky and bright sun had replaced the clouds and fog that dominated the morning. The result was a spectacular late-winter afternoon in the wilderness.
We certainly couldn't blame the weather for the tight-lipped crappies we encountered.
Even on a sunny afternoon, there was just enough wind to make standing outside uncomfortable, at times, and the heated cab of the Sno-Bear felt good as Edman steered the vehicle south and east toward a time-proven walleye spot, past areas such as Monument Bay, the Western Peninsula and Windigo Island.
The sun was fading fast by the time he plopped the Sno-Bear down off the edge of a reef, but there was still time to put a 19-inch walleye in the bucket.
We'd sampled miles of remote country and experienced the variety of fishing available on the Ontario side of the lake. Fish that don't bite can be frustrating, but the day had flown by and our surroundings were about as good as they get in this part of the world in winter.
"There's always something to look at," Edman said. "You just never know what you're going to see out here. The scenery's breathtaking; it's just unbelievable for somebody who's never experienced this up in the islands here."
And for those of us who have, it never gets old.