Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 | OUTDOORS
Slight breezes are often amplified on Minnesota’s Upper Red Lake, but a relative calm greeted us at 9 a.m., upon arrival New Year’s Day. We’d left our homes, many of us with barely three hours of sleep, greeting each other with cheery grins in Barron at around 2 a.m.
Our group has grown now to include 16 guys, and as it has been for several years now, the anticipation every year runs high. Fishing had slowed a bit from what it was like on Upper Red in mid-December, but many shacks were still producing decent numbers of walleye. The walleye slot had changed from the year before, going from 19-26 inches to 17-26 inches, meaning only three walleye could be kept under 17 inches per day, or one trophy walleye over 26 inches and two under 17. The northern pike slot has also changed over the years, and this year we were greeted with a 26- to 44-inch slot limit.
With an impending full moon, a winter storm warning for Saturday looming and temperatures expected to plummet the following day, there were high hopes that we’d be hitting the jackpot this season in terms of getting every fish that passed under the shack to bite. It was likely to be a trip to easily surpass the other fairly successful years of ice fishing we’ve had on Red Lake, but as the old cliché goes, there’s a reason it’s called fishing, not catching, and Mother Nature almost always seems to call the shots in the end.
Last year was not much different in that it brought straight temps of minus 30 degrees without the wind chill, and never got above zero. Nor did we have the opportunity to escape the shacks we slept in for three days, with the exception of a few hours on the final evening. On the way home, a vehicle broke down and two of the members of our party were forced to spend the night in the North Woods at a hotel. But that was last year.
Our 2015 trip started out OK, but we found out quickly that the small drifts and nearly glare ice conditions on the lake were difficult even for my friend’s one-ton diesel. As we approached our sleeper shack about three miles out from JR’s Corner Access Landing, the truck got hung up on a small drift, and couldn’t move further on the glare ice. It wasn’t much, but with a frozen hub keeping his four-wheel drive out of commission, he wasn’t moving without a little help.
Once the truck was finally in place, priorities largely focused on settling into our cozy shacks, choosing one of four bunks and, of course, getting that first line in the water. It wasn’t too long, and by evening Thursday we were getting a few bites, with the best bites coming well after dark. With the fish biting well, hunger setting in, and plenty of fish to feed the four of us in the shack, we decided on a fish boil to get the trip started in the right direction. My friend Josh Miller did much of the cooking, and I was busy filleting the next fish that came up through the hole, and even a few decent perch hit the frying pan that night. We ate like kings out of plastic cups, with a little melted butter, and looked forward to the famous fish fry that JR’s Corner Access would prepare for us the next evening as we brought our next limit to shore.
It was a quality first night of fishing, and with the predicted snow, Friday looked 10 times better. Most of us were up fishing before light the next morning. We’d even caught a few fish on rattle reels in the shack after midnight, but from that point on, fishing slowed considerably. It wasn’t until about 11 a.m. that my uncle Del connected with his first fish, even though several of us began fishing before daylight. At around 1 p.m., I landed, and tossed back, a small walleye, followed by a couple of small perch.
With barely any luck by our group, or the other 12 anglers in the party, my friends Josh and Willy Wormer got busy fixing the hub on the truck. They abandoned fishing completely late in the afternoon, driving the 50 miles to Bemidji, Minn., to pick up the part they needed. With a bare minimum of tools, they were able to get the four-wheel drive working again. In that span of time, they hadn’t missed much, as Del and I hadn’t caught another fish in the time it took them to get the truck fixed.
After a long, quiet evening of fishing, and barely one limit of walleye on the ice, we were off to sleep, waiting for what Saturday might bring, while snow began to fall outside the shack. We missed a couple of fish on rattle reels that evening, but by Saturday morning, fishing seemed to stall completely. The snow and wind were in full force, blowing at 30-plus mph, leaving us with little choice but to stay inside the warm shack, as opposed to moving around on the ice, or simply setting up a portable shack in a different area. At about 11:30 a.m., without so much as a bite or positive report from the other anglers, we talked about heading for home. The sun was shining bright on Saturday, making it easier to see land despite the blowing snow, and none of us felt like packing up in the dark, with limited visibility. Nobody really wanted to leave, but knowing temperatures were going to steadily decline, with more blowing snow, and minus 45 degree wind chill sure to come Sunday morning, we decided to head home early.
By around 3:30 p.m., Saturday, the truck and trailer were hooked up and ready to roll off the ice. The others elected to stay the night and gut it out, but the fishing never did improve, and we felt glad to be home in bed by late Saturday night.
It wasn’t the trip we anticipated, but the first night was a positive one, and as with any trip, there’s always the chance something can go wrong, or fish simply won’t bite. As usual, there was plenty of laughs and camaraderie with friends, and that’s what taking a fishing trip is really all about.