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From the archives: Remembering the 1996 fishing opener, when four of us ice fished on Lake of the Woods

There we were, standing on the shore of Lake of the Woods on the opening day of fishing season. And we had it all to ourselves.

Outdoor page cover 5.11.96.jpg
A time-worn photo of the Grand Forks Herald Outdoors pages from Thursday, May 16, 1996, which featured a story by Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken about the 1996 Minnesota fishing opener, which he spent ice fishing on Lake of the Woods.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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This year’s late spring, and the lingering ice that continues to cover many northern Minnesota lakes, has people wondering if the lakes will be ice-free by the state’s general fishing opener on Saturday, May 14.

Chances are better than not that there’ll be at least some ice on the farthest-north lakes, but there probably won’t be a repeat of the 1996 Minnesota fishing opener, when Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken and three other anglers spent the day ice fishing on Lake of the Woods.

The story below appeared on the Outdoors pages of the Thursday, May 16, 1996, edition of the Grand Forks Herald. The photos and negatives from that day – this was way back in the days of film and negatives, after all – burned up with the Herald when the building caught fire a year later during the Flood of 1997, but a weathered copy of that long-ago Outdoors cover appears with this story, along with a screen shot of a photo that ran with the story from that memorable day on May 11, 1996.

GRACETON BEACH, on Lake of the Woods – I’ve heard of putting opening-day fishing plans on ice but this was ridiculous.

That’s how I felt Saturday morning, the inaugural day of Minnesota’s 1996 fishing season.

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Ahh, another opening day. Blue sky on a brisk morning. A beautiful day. Opening day. In a world of outdoor rituals, they don’t get much bigger.

There we were, four of us, standing on the shore of one of North America’s premier walleye factories. And we had it all to ourselves. No opening-day crowds. No outboard motors. Just morning silence, broken by the distinct drumming of a male ruffed grouse looking for a mate.

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And miles, and miles of ice. …

As far as the eye could see there was ice. A sea of white. Not a boat in sight.

Walleye chop? Forget it. The only chop here would be the chop that sent ice chips flying in every direction as we augered our holes.

Emotional vertigo

Sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying. And since it was opening day, and time to think spring after one of the toughest winters in recent history, we did what any slightly off-kilter adventure seeker would do: We dropped our jigs through holes in the ice and laughed at Mother Nature’s cruel joke.

Credit Bob Ekstrom of Pitt, Minnesota, for this offbeat idea. He’d planted the seed a few days earlier, when he called to say he was looking for some “demented souls” to join him for some opening-day ice fishing.

The idea was too strange and the opportunity too rare to ignore. Not since 1950, the old-timers say, had Lake of the Woods been locked in ice on opening day. Besides, the ice was safe, Ekstrom assured.

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Being at least mildly convinced of Ekstrom’s general sanity, I quickly consented and left him to handle the details.

He had a tougher time convincing Dennis Topp of Baudette, Minnesota, and Scott Laudenslager, who lives near Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota. But common sense eventually lost out and they, too, joined us as we set out on this monumental opening-day fishing adventure.

We’d all weathered the cries of “Ice fishing? You’re nuts!” from friends and co-workers in response to our plans.

It was time for the opening-day shuffle across the ice.

One for the books

None of us had any expectations for fishing success. The act of venturing out – and hopefully back – would be our success. We’d ice fish for a couple of hours, just to say we did it, and then head east to the Rainy River for a more traditional angle on opening day.

Our plans changed when we discovered we couldn’t keep our lines in the water without catching a fish, but I’ll get to that later.

Safety’s the name of the game when venturing out on late-season ice. (That’s especially true in mid-May, when there usually is no ice.)

With Ekstrom leading the way – it was his idea, after all – we hit the ice, pulling his Grumman sport boat that doubled as our sled. It carried an assortment of ice fishing gear, a tabletop barbecue grill, an assortment of bratwurst, corn cobs, chips and beans (for a nice “offshore” lunch) and two paddles – just in case.

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We all wore life jackets.

Bob Ekstrom 5.11.96.JPG
This screen shot from the May 16, 1996, Grand Forks Herald Outdoors pages shows Bob Ekstrom walking out to an ice fishing spot on Lake of the Woods on May 11, 1996, the opening day of that year's Minnesota fishing season. The photos and negatives from that day burned up with the Grand Forks Herald during the Red River Flood of 1997.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Ekstrom poked the ice in front of him with a spud bar as we inched our way out on the frozen lake. Ice conditions improved within 50 yards of shore, and we soon proceeded at a less gingerly pace.

Flying by for a look

This definitely wasn’t a typical opening day. Besides a frozen lake, the weather was too nice to be a typical opener. No gusty wind, no driving rain, no snow flurries. Just sun and miles of ice. Seagulls, pelicans, cormorants and ducks were our only company. They’d swoop by for a closer look and, curiosity satisfied, head off in search of open water.

After a couple of unproductive stops, we ventured out to 30 feet of water about 1½ miles from shore. The ice was soft, but a consistent 18 to 24 inches.

We found the fish in deep water. Apparently, someone forgot to tell them about the sheet of ice that covered the lake – or they just didn’t care.

Whatever the reason, they were aggressive. Saugers, walleyes, tullibees, perch. Most were too small to keep, but the action was fast. While our open-water counterparts scratched for one or two fish, we had a difficult time keeping two lines in the water – especially Topp and Laudenslager.

Gulls swooped in, looking for an easy meal of fresh fish.

Feeling very proud of ourselves, we soaked in the sun and pulled up fish after fish.

We soon scratched our plans to fish the Rainy River. Not that we weren’t curious. Ekstrom’s friend Bob Jensen of Grand Forks had refused to take the ice fishing bait and while we headed to the lake, he turned east toward the river.

That night, dining on fish we’d caught from a frozen lake in mid-May, we knew we’d made the right decision. Jensen and a fishing partner, also from Grand Forks, had released eight walleyes between 19½ and 24½ inches trolling crankbaits against the current in 6 to 8 feet of water. The fish, dripping with eggs, were in mid-spawn.

For Ekstrom and Co., opening day 1996, which will go down in the record books as “Ekstrom’s Excellent Adventure,” will have a prominent place among future fish tales.

“The whole point was just to do it,” Ekstrom said. “We caught over 100 fish and kept 25 to eat, so that’s a good day, no matter what time you’re out there.”

The day will live on for the adventure as much as the fishing.

“It was the fact that you were fishing through the ice on opening weekend that made it special,” Ekstrom said. “And I hope I never have the opportunity to do it again.”

This story originally appeared in the May 16, 1996, edition of the Grand Forks Herald.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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