Hockey team faces off with walleyes on trip to Warroad

WARROAD, MINN. – “Shotgun” Tommy Lund hurried out of Olympic Arena to check on the heated fish house he maintains as an unofficial hospitality room for thirsty hockey parents on tournament weekends.

Crammed inside the pale blue shack were 11 strangers — all parents from Cottage Grove making the best out of an intermission in their sons’ morning peewee game.

“You found it!” Lund said. “The Shotgun Lounge.”

Lund, a tourney volunteer who played on Warroad High School’s 1994 Class 1A state championship team, personifies the region’s dual worship of hockey and ice fishing on Lake of the Woods. He warmed up easily to his new guests, mildly impressed that they organized a team walleye outing as a prelude to three days of puck battles in Hockeytown USA.

Lund, who played college hockey at St. Cloud State, works at Marvin Windows and sets up ice fishing for a small number of visitors to Warroad. When his angler friends leave beer behind, he moves it to the Shotgun Lounge for his hockey brethren. A popcorn box near the beer cooler accepts voluntary tips.

Along the south shore of Lake of the Woods between Warroad and Baudette, hockey and ice fishing go together so well that the owners of Ballard’s Resort on Wheelers Point have occasionally invited fishing groups to their house to play hockey on their outdoor rink. The full-sized boards for that rink were used by the city of Baudette to host the inaugural Hockey Day Minnesota in 2007.

“We get to take a lot of teams fishing,” said Jessie Ballard Anthony, who operates the resort with her husband, Nick Anthony. “It’s a cool bonding thing for the kids.”

Nick Anthony and Keith Ballard, Jessie’s brother, won back-to-back NCAA hockey championships with the Gophers in 2002 and 2003. Now Nick and Jessie are raising three young hockey players of their own. They shuttle them to games and practices, even while the ice fishing business booms from early January until late February.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, ice fishing pressure on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods climbed to 2.8 million hours of effort in 2020 and nearly as high last year. Phil Talmage, DNR’s fisheries supervisor for the area, said winter fishing pressure remains high, but the surge appears to have leveled off. He said the catch rates, especially for sauger, are holding up.

“There’s a nice, harvestable amount of sauger out there,” Talmage said.

Wolfpack on ice

It was 7 am and 4 degrees below zero on Jan. 28 when team bus driver Duane Hatch pulled away from the hotel for a 25-minute ride to Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort. The sixth- and seventh-grade hockey players were sporting their Wolfpack team jackets and matching knit hats.

The ice captains at Arnesen’s watched the boys shuffle downhill from the parking lot to a waiting fleet of “bombers,” caterpillar-tracked transport vehicles akin to monster trucks.

“Who are you guys playing tonight? asked Charlie McCarthy, one of the guides.

The team would play Eagan, but the game was 12 hours away and the boys were fixed on the lake’s seemingly endless blanket of snow. For some of them, ice fishing was new and former pro wrestler Dan Jesser, a veteran ice captain, offered advice.

“You want two minnows on your hook,” Jesser told them. “If you get a bite, but miss him, go right back and drop that jig against the bottom. Do it a couple of times and he might come back.”

Aboard the bombers, 30 of us headed to a cluster of fish houses at Gull Rock Reef, two miles away. The moms packed everyone a bagged lunch and Arnesen’s supplied the minnows. Our gear ranged in sophistication from an electronic, side-imaging fish finder to a hand-held rod paired with a fly-fishing reel.

Chase Nadler, a second-year peewee who plays forward, scored a walleye on his first drop. Measuring 11 inches, it was too small to keep, but it drew whoops inside the shack from teammates Nate Chlebeck and Jack Kennedy.

“Hey, give me some knucks!” said Charlie McCarthy, who had rigged Chase’s line with a bobber, sinker and plain orange hook. “Toss it back, but give it a kiss.”

good questions

In another shanty, coaches Dave Joslin and John Janaszak were hooking similar sized fish. The bite would come and go, but they stayed with it long enough to catch at least 17 walleyes and saugers, including four keepers.

Inside yet another shack, Wolfpack defenseman Luke Munger demonstrated patience early on. “What do you think a fish thinks when it gets hooked?” he asked.

Good question.

By 11 am, most team members were effectively done fishing. The slow bite gave way to carefree horseplay on the ice. Then came a knock on our door. Team forward Logan Bachand was holding a plump 15.5-inch walleye. He was sent to our shack by Mike Zasada, a dad who understood the value of a good fish photo.

But that was it for Logan. He posed with his catch, then scrambled away with teammates. They went from house to house, relaying stories. Wolfpack player Evan Foote, for instance, caught an eelpout. Coach Collin Stehr caught a nice walleye (supposedly) that got away. Head coach Brian Buffie and his son, Ethan, caught three keeper-sized walleyes that they put back in the lake.

By 12:30, interest had waned enough for much of the group to ride back to the resort. The die-hards who stayed included youngsters Miles Nadler and Shea Zasada, both 10.

Like two old-timers, they exchanged small talk as they fished beside each other with patience and proper technique. At one point, Shea examined the minnow on his hook. Miles wondered if minnows grow up to become bass. An adult answered that minnows are baitfish for life.

“So, this one could be 80 years old?” Shea asked.

Another good question.

Back in Warroad, the team defeated Eagan, Detroit Lakes and Hermantown. When the Wolfpack arrived for Sunday’s championship game, the Shotgun Lounge was sadly missing.

Inside the arena, Tommy Lund explained. His son, Conner, was on the Warroad team that was about to beat Cottage Grove by one goal. But his older son, Ryan, was gone fishing with some of his varsity teammates. The pale blue fish house was theirs for the day.

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