BAUDETTE, Minn. — The polar vortex is not so bad when you’re in a well-insulated, heated shack sitting on two feet of Lake of the Woods ice cranking up walleyes and saugers from the depths.
You expect it to be cold up there at the end of January, but you can’t really prepare for the Antarctica-style hostile environment that enveloped the lake on Jan. 29.
The dashboard thermometer on the only one of our three pickups that would start said 39 below — cold enough to greatly amplify the crunch of snow beneath our boots.
Though we couldn’t measure the wind chill, the National Weather Service reported 59 below in Baudette, the nearest town, and declared blizzard conditions across northern Minnesota and much of the Upper Midwest.
When we first got into our shacks that morning, frigid air pouring in through cracks around the door turned to steam when it met air warmed by the propane heater.
Our ice holes were glazing over before our guardian angel — Kelly Berggren, co-owner of the Long Point Resort — showed up with a wool blanket to plug the cracks. Comfort was soon restored, and once again our coats hung on the hooks provided for them.
By day’s end, the temperature had climbed to 28 below, but the wind, if anything, had strengthened. Blowing snow turned the world white and clogged the plowed roads on the lake.
The polar vortex did not seem to bother the fish, which after all are 32 feet down beneath a two-foot layer of ice.
I and my seven companions — Jim Brace, Don Dutler, Mike Stafford and Doug Reck, all of Winthrop, Bill Sloan and Ted Wieland, both of Quasqueton, and Dean Baragary of Monti — cleaned from 30 to 40 walleyes and saugers every day and released at least that many smaller ones.
We ate fish three of the five nights we were there and brought home the eight apiece — four walleyes and four saugers — allowed by Minnesota law.
In approximately 240 angler hours, we caught just three walleyes that qualified for immediate release under the 19.5- to 28-inch protected slot limit.
Apart from the fun and excitement of catching one (about which I know little), the experience can be financially rewarding, as Jim Brace realized on our third day when he caught a 20-incher worth $140 — a four-day accumulation of the $5 per angler per day slot fish pot.
As further demonstration of his skill/luck, he caught a 26.5-incher on our last day to add $35 to his winnings.
Yes, it seems counterintuitive to drive 570 miles north to go ice fishing in late January, especially into the teeth of an oncoming polar vortex predicted to be the coldest in two decades.
But it’s not like it was not going to be bitterly cold at home.
And with apologies to my wife, who had to shovel snow in my absence, there’s really no place I’d rather have been than at the 49th parallel, just out of range of cellphone signals, in a warm shack watching walleyes jiggle the tips of my ice fishing rods.