At 5 a.m. last weekend, our phone weather apps revealed the news: 13 below, a predicted a high of zero, plus a 20 mph blow.
We didn’t care as we headed east to the Red Lake Indian Reservation and a rendezvous with rainbow trout.
I was the back seat passenger in a pickup with two friends, both named Brad, as we headed east on a 2½-hour drive.
Brad No. 1’s main goal of the trip was to connect with my nephew, Blake, and his two friends at Seven Clans Casino on the edge of Red Lake, Minn. More about that in a minute. (I used to change Blake’s diapers.)
Brad had bought Blake’s Polaris snowmobile, and the joint trip was a perfect excuse to hook up, exchange the sled and catch some feisty, tasty trout.
Joining Blake were fishing buddies Greg Clusiau and Justin Bailey. All three live in Keewatin, Minn., a 10-minute ride from Hibbing on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Those three wingnuts, plus Brad No. 2, spend more time on hard and soft water than any people I know.
Brad No. 2, whose last name is Durick, guides anglers for catfish on the Red River when it’s not frozen. He fished into November last year.
Brad No. 1 ― who wears the last name Dokken ― and I go way back. Employment and other nasty reasons keep us from fishing as much as those guys, but we don’t complain too loudly. We get our fill.
Add to our party of six the two Indian guides, brothers Daris and Davis Rosebear, and the trout were a wee bit vulnerable.
Red Lake’s lakes
When I told people we were going fishing on Red Lake, I meant the small lakes on the reservation, not Upper Red Lake, where people flock to catch walleyes or, if luckier, a lunker crappie. Northern pike the size of canoe paddles make the Reds home, too. Lower Red Lake’s fishing is open to tribal members only. (For dynamite reading, Google Brad Dokken’s stories about Red Lake’s walleye comeback.)
In addition to the giant upper and lower lakes, few people know the reservation holds more than 100 other lakes ― mainly south of the big lake. They range in size from potholes to what people would consider small bodies of water. Look at a map. Lakes dominate the landscape.
The smaller lakes are managed for recreation for both tribal and nontribal members. Trout, rainbows and brookies, can be fished year-round. Other lakes offer giant bass, lake trout and other species. To fish, you need a reservation license and a guide. (See contact details at the end of the blog.)
Saturday, we fished a bowl-like body of water tucked down in a forest of popple. The lake is small and deep, ideal for allowing rainbows and some brook trout to thrive, unless they’re caught on a Northland Tackle Buckshot Flutter Spoon.
The Keewatin guys promote Northland-brand fishing gear, mainly because the stuff excels at helping to hook fish. All three are associated with the fishing industry in some shape and form, but that’s another story.
Fact is, we could have used a paper clip impaled with a nightcrawler or wax worm and the fish would have smacked it.
And catch fish we did.
Limits of five fish per angler are the norm, says guide Davis.
The trout last weekend were the 14- to 17-inchers ― perfect eaters. (See Jeff Tiedeman’s blog on this site about how he enjoys preparing them for a crazy delicious meal.)
Summer like comfort
Today’s ice fishing gear is almost too good. All of us wore the latest “suits” with brand names such as Clam, Frabill, Vexilar, Striker, to name a few. Bottom line is these bibs and coats are waterproof and produce oven-like temperatures when worn. Unless you use the zipper vents when drilling holes or setting up shelters, you sweat ― even in temps below zero. Frozen sweat is an evil enemy when ice fishing. I’m not making this up.
The gear isn’t cheap, think $200 to $300 a suit, but compared with the one, 84-cent dinky Roma tomato I paid at a local grocery store the other day, it’s a bargain. What the hell is reasonably priced when compared with wages these days, anyway?
I can’t forget to mention boots, either. Most guys wore thick insulated rubber boots made by Muck. Others wore a heavy combination rubber and leather. All warm boots are big and blocky because that’s the only way manufacturers can provide enough insulation to keep feet warm. The boots are the antithesis of sandals. But I’ve seen people wear slippers in sleeper fish houses. The boots aren’t cheap either. But my first pair of Mucks are 8 years old. That’s called value. If you want to press one of Blake’s buttons, ask him about the quality of work boots these days. “I go through $160 boots twice a year. I’ve tried all brands and they all suck!” Did I tell you asparagus is up to $4 a pound these days at our local grocery store?
Two pop-up shelters kept us comfortable. The shelters, when splayed out, lifted, locked and placed over the holes, allow you to be fishing in minutes. Light the propane heater and the fishing environment, I think, is as least or even more comfortable than the vagaries of summer’s weather ― without the bugs.
After drilling some holes, Blake couldn’t wait for the shelter to be erected. Standing with his back against the wind, he dropped a naked jigging spoon through the fresh, slushy hole allowing it drop into the depths. By naked I mean it contained no bait.
“Got one!” he yelled to the rest of us who saw the bent, animated rod. We get really frustrated when fish take more than a few seconds to smash a lure.
He lifted the silver and blue flip-flopping, twisting fish out of the hole and smiled.
I know we all said “wise ass” at once, under our breath. All anglers possess at least a sliver of competitive spirit.
“Great job, Blake!”
The rainbow looked too pretty to eat, but I could have bitten into it then, rawwww and wriiiiiigling. But then I love trout. With highlights of red and purple, the rainbows are beautiful and accurately named.
Inside the shelter, the fish locators flashed, ice rods rigged and pieces of nightcrawler skewered to lures. Someday, fly fishermen might figure out how to work their lines and artificial flies on frozen lakes. But for now, ice fishing remains in the providence of those who use such things as ¼-quarter ounce lures that contain hooks you can actually see, plus live bait.
Compared with summer equipment, the rods are short, generally no longer than 24 inches or so. The reels generally are small, no larger than the palm of your hand.
The locators, all of ours are made by Vexilar, reveals a picture of the column of water you’re working -― where your lure is, the lake bottom and anything in between, which of course are fish.
Reading a locator is part science and part art. You get good at it. The guys in our shelter are experts at interpreting what they see on the circular screen. But that doesn’t mean just because you see a fish that the thing will bite whatever you’re offering it. I could get into jigging techniques and other details these guys have learned over the years. It’s true though, practice, like anything, makes you a better angler. Luck is a creature nobody has seen, but, like that new Minnesota state record walleye, it’s out there.
Add a scoop to clear ice from holes and your usual tools to unhook fish, your lunch, and that’s what one needs to complete the ice fishing gear package.
By 2 p.m., with 40 or 50 trout either caught, kept or released, the temp was still cold enough to kill one truck battery. Jumper cables cured that. The truck tires squeaked in the snow as we left the lake, a sound only below-zero temperatures can produce. When you hear it, you know it’s a bit nippy.
We were heading home though, with trout in the bucket.
The wind had picked up, too, we noticed.
Still, we didn’t care.
For info about fishing Red Lake Reservation lakes, contact Daris at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (218) 679-2500, extension 16091. Or try (218) 308-5378.