Big Red and Fred

With the flip of the calendar, I found myself plotting my adventures for 2012. January 1st seemed like a proper launch date for my trusty cohort, Rollie, and I to head for some “Big Ice”.

Our crosshairs were on Upper Red Lake, which is ginormous post-glacial pond located about half way from Child Lake and the Canadian Border.

This lake is a monster; over 190,000 acres of BIG! The strange ingredient is that it’s only 15’ deep at it’s deepest point. In other words, it’s one gigantic saucer filled with walleye pike. If you combine it with her sister, Lower Red Lake, the whole works comes in at 288,800 acres, making it the largest body of water totally within the Minnesota borders.

Now that’s more water than one small ex-Art teacher can fish in a lifetime!

Luckily for me, (and probably Sue), I can only fish about one-fifthth of it. The entire Lower Red and two-thirds of Upper Red are controlled by the Red Lake Band of Ojibway. They do not take kindly to those stumbling over the imaginary dividing line in Upper Red, so GPS is a good thing, Martha.

The plan was to meet up with Rollie and his buddy, Tom, at Swanson’s in Hackensack. Swanson’s, the local baitfish emporium, is at the crossroads of where I live and where the rest of Minnesota passes by to go play on the water, whether it’s hard or soft.

Like most of you mid-westerners, we’ve been living through the longest autumn on record. Day after day, week after week, of no snow and warm temps. Of course, the day I choose to travel north is the one day we get 3” of snow and a 40 mph headwind with a plummeting thermometer.

I’ve driven in worse; but not this year. But then again ‘this year’ was only 11 hrs old!

Slip-sliding and white-knuckeled, we headed for the town of Waskish, which is 1 mile long and 8 feet wide, and sits on the eastern edge of Upper Red Lake…UPRL from now on.

We purchased the needed ice road passes at the access point, a bucket of fathead minnows, and finally Tom’s “Ice Castle” that was parked nearby.

Now an Ice Castle is a towable fish house that raises and lowers on cranks when positioned over 6 holes drilled in the ice. To say they are comfortable, well okay. To say they are well appointed is a stretch; to say they are spacious is an out right lie. Apollo 13 had it easy, as far as I’m concerned. They do, however, have everything to make a winter stay on a frozen ice sheet amazingly tolerable for three icetronauts.

We take 90º turn onto the surface of URL and into a white abyss.

A wind gusting to 50 mph and fresh snow makes a lake you can’t see across normally, a bit more foreboding. Not feeling comfortable driving too far into the unknown, we stop only a mile out and set up camp. We manage to drill holes, drop the rig, bank it with snow, and carry in gear and supplies without anything getting loose and ending up in Mexico.

Soon soon after setting up, we started fishing and would continue late into the howling night. Taking turns every couple hours, venturing out in the shrieking maelstrom to shovel and chip the door so it will not drift shut and trap us in our mother ship. We only have enough food to last 2-3 weeks, but only five days of beer.

We had heard glowing reports that the walleye bite was going crazy on UPRL, so our expectations were at a fevered pitch. That afternoon/evening/night was, in baseball terms… a perfect game. No runs, no hits, no errors, no one touches first. The problem being that we were on the losing team. Simply put — nadda.

As the sun drops, the weather nymphs are in a playful mood and cranks everything up about 5-10 mph more. We, however, are blissfully snug in our hard water space capsule. In fact, a bit too snug for people dressed with lined pants and expedition weight long underwear! The thermostat for the propane heater is on the windward wall.  And the windchill is seeping in where it’s mounted, telling it that it is colder than it really is.  This keeps the burners firing full time. Oh well, better than the reverse!

We dropped the bunks, pulled out sleeping bags, then we each held a small caliber handgun on each other to go outside for the last “nature call.”

Tomorrow had to be better.

Because of my Barbie bladder, I was first up the next morning. After a rather firm hockey check, I got the door cracked open enough to extract myself. The wind had died and a pleasant sunrise greeted me. It was the coldest morning in several weeks, but with the wind down, it felt balmy.

Now in tennis there’s a rule, “Always change a losing game!” Time to move the LEM!

We barely take time to choke down a cup of coffee before we’re cranking the ice castle loose from it’s ice encrusted moorings and heading across the lake to the promise land… errr… water. Using GPS, we head out about 6 miles further looking for a small rock pile in the bottom of an immense featureless lake.

When we get about 200’ from the small underwater structure but, there’s a two foot high pressure ridge that is thrusting up between us and the expected glory hole. It stops us in our tracks.

We head towards a back up spot and are stopped again.

About then, an old beat-up, two-toned, pick-up truck pulls up. In the cab is a genial, portly driver and some kind of hound dog in a sweater. He rolls down the window and introduces me to his dog, Fred. We exchange pleasantries and I can tell this man is a local and knows this lake.

I explain our predicament and he says, “Follow me. I’ll take you through this bad ice and set you up on a spot.” We drive for a few minutes and the truck stops. An arm extends out the window and a finger points downward. And a voice says, ”Fred says here.”  The truck pulls away.

Now I’m not a religious man by any means, but I’m here to tell you, the Messiah drives a ’95 Ford Ranger and has an angel dog named Fred.

We drill holes, drop the shack, make ready for housekeeping, and pull out the rods. My locater says 11.5 feet of water so I drop my fathead minnow down the hole to verify the depth. My line keeps going and going and going, well past the 11.5 mark.

What the hey?

I close the bail and reel up and feel a tug and set the hook. FISH ON! A gorgeous 19.5 inches of golden “wally eye” is flopping on the floor. My first walleye of the season and first one from UPRL!

Now, the problem being…I have to let her go! She’s too big. UPRL has a “Slot” to protect the larger female walleye stock – the breeders. Anything above 17” and below 26” must go back.

At the end of the twenty-ith century, due to netting and over-harvesting sport fishing, the walleye population crashed so bad that both Red Lakes became a Dead Sea. It was so bad that all the parties involved, from the Red Lack Band to the Mn DNR, decided to close the lake to all forms of walleye fishing for several years.

After a number of years, the DNR slowly allowed walleye fishing to resume and gradually increased the possession limit to four fish. It’s a genuine case of where a government plan actually worked. The fillet-mignon of freshwater came back, and came back they did! The slot is in place to keep them there.

God Bless America.

The rest of our stay was an ice fishing delight. Never quite hitting the numbers that others were claiming on the internet sites, we were however into fish all day and the next morning. We managed to limit a cooler full of “eyes” and few bonus jumbo perch to boot.

A bent rod cut’s thirty years off one’s birth certificate, if only temporarily. But the “glow” lasts for several days. To be with good friends and a snug shelter on a lake so big that it seems to eat the sky, is where this heart loves to play.

These moments are scattered throughout ones life, but sadly it seems to take snow white hair and a wrinkling brow to let it permeate the soul and make one realize how fleeting and ephemeral these moments really are.

My New Year’s wish is for you and yours is to seek these moments and find them. Savor them like fine wine or extraordinary food. Remember, the silence between the notes are as important as the musical notes themselves.

Farewell Red Lake, I shall return.

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