The new owners make a cold-blooded investment in ice fishing on the lake in the woods
They just invested $20 million in the future of Lake of the Woods fishing, so there’s nothing “cold” about this four-month ice season for business partners Joe Swanson and Pipasu Soni.
In a major behind-the-scenes deal completed this year, the two Minnesotans purchased four owner-managed resorts in the Wheelers Point area. Sportsman’s Lodge, Border View Lodge, Wheelers Point Resort and Rainy River Resort now offer fishing vacations under the same corporate umbrella while trying to maintain their distinct charms.
After spring and summer floods submerged docks and depleted stocks, the new owners expect 70 percent of their annual business to come from the four-month ice fishing season, which typically begins on Dec. 10, on average.
“All the ice fishing is a big part of it,” said Swanson, who grew up in Silver Bay as the youngest of four boys. He attended Lake Superior College in Duluth and Mankato State.
He and Soni have hired Minnesota-based Leisure Hotels and Resorts to operate the properties and the new general manager is Warroad’s Jeff Andersen, a highly regarded fishing professional. Andersen will be at the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show at the RiverCentre next weekend. He will oversee two booths, each representing four stations.
“There’s a lot of history and tradition behind each of these places and we’re going here in groups for our first winter,” Andersen said. “It’s a fun endeavor.”
As resort owners, Swanson and Soni are new to Lake of the Woods. They met — along with their wives, Zoe Swanson and Christi Soni — as neighbors in Plymouth. Joe Swanson is a business consultant and financial planner specializing in estate and retirement planning. For two years in college, he was a member of the Board of Trustees of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, serving as board treasurer for one year. Soni is the chief financial officer of bus manufacturer New Flyer Industries in Winnipeg. Together, they also own a North Shore resort and a lakeside RV campground at Mille Lacs.
Swanson declined to say how much they paid for each Lake of the Woods resort, but the overall purchase price was about $20 million. It was unusual for all four properties to be listed for sale, he said. The purchases were agreed upon in October 2021, but individual property closings took place between April and June.
He said his interest in Lake of the Woods fishing tourism dates back nearly 20 years, when he and 60 Twin Cities colleagues traveled to Ballard’s Resort in Wheelers Point for fall walleye fishing on 11 charter boats.
“I remember how special it was to look across the street from the resort and see the Canadian forest,” Swanson said. “It’s unique and very amazing… forest and countryside, but everything you need to live and work there.”
When he and Soni researched their guests’ zip codes, they realized that Lake of the Woods ice fishing is a top-of-the-bucket item for anglers, especially those who live outside the Midwest. Tapping into those desires to get a walleye off the ice is part of the marketing plan, especially since Delta Airlines flies twice daily to International Falls, 68 miles from Baudette.
But bringing in new customers isn’t a top priority as the resorts owned by Swanson and Soni prepare for long 18-hour days. A grueling schedule for workers is typical of the ice fishing season. Only this time, the ice crew and resort staff will exchange experiences, share equipment and consolidate other back-office operations.
“You want to systematize things that guests can’t see,” Swanson said. “But we have to keep the focus on the front of the house … the guest experience.”
That’s Andersen’s job. An immediate benefit will be the creation of a single ice road for the exclusive use of combined operations. How many kilometers long? “Twenty or 25,” Andersen said, “it depends on how far we have to go to find the fish.”
In the past, the main multi-user ice road in the Wheelers Point area has experienced traffic jams and delays in ferrying anglers to the fishing huts. “This way we will avoid chaos,” said Andersen. The Sportsman’s Lodge, he added, will continue to take its guests off-road onto the ice using “bombers” that ride on continuous caterpillar tracks.
Another plus? Bombers, ice vehicles, snowmobiles, charter boats and other outdoor equipment will be handled by the same crew this winter and serviced by a full-time mechanic. Work vehicles and propane equipment will initially service 160 ice houses. The construction of the extended garage is now ready.
Andersen said the four stations employ 140 people, second only to ANI Pharmaceuticals in Baudette. But it is the family atmosphere, not the corporate one, that the resorts will continue for the benefit of their customers.
“People are really satisfied with their resorts. They come back and are very proud of them,” Andersen said. “For now we won’t change anything.”
He said the first year of operations is to explore ways to consolidate where it makes sense. “We will analyze it and understand it and adjust it,” Andersen said. “The challenge is how we come together and grow as one.”
Swanson said he and Soni were impressed with the stations’ operational history. In the long term, they will look to add amenities without losing sight of the main attraction, Swanson said.
“It’s about fishing,” he said. “It’s growing and making great memories on a really special lake.”
The upcoming ice show
San Paulo ice fishing and winter sports show
When: December 2–4 Friday-Sunday
Where: St. Paul’s River Center
Timetable: Friday from 13:00 to 20:00; Saturday from 10:00 to 19:00; Sunday from 9:00 to 16:00
What: More than 190 exhibitions
Ticket prices: $6 to $25 (VIP). Children under 5 free.