ISLE, MINN. — "Fish on!" Tony Roach shouted, his ice-fishing rod bent in half as he set the hook. "He slammed it."
Roach, smiling broadly, eased the fish through the hole in the ice.
"Look at that ... man, oh man," he said, admiring the 6- to 7-pound brilliant green walleye before slipping it back into the cold waters of Lake Mille Lacs.
Tony Roach, 32, had dreamed of becoming a guide and professional angler since he was in kindergarten. Now the dream has come true. Five years ago, he quit his construction job and moved his family from the Twin Cities to Lake Mille Lacs. Now he's on the water daily, looking for fish.
And usually finding them.
He's already made a name for himself as a guide, appearing on outdoor TV shows and giving seminars at sports shows. He has a long list of fishing equipment sponsors. He owns Roach's Guide Service and has a bevy of guides who work with him.
Last week, Roach and two friends -- joined by a cameraman from MidWest Outdoors TV and me -- found hot walleye action on the recently frozen, snow-swept Lake Mille Lacs. Using four-wheelers to haul portable houses and fishing gear, we motored about five miles out and fished under a blue sky with temperatures barely breaking double digits.
The sprawling lake, which just a week earlier was open water, was void of other anglers. We found about 11 inches of ice -- meaning Mille Lacs soon will be covered with thousands of fish houses. Roach doesn't mind the competition, because he marches to a different drummer.
He employs a method he calls "ice trolling."
That's no joke.
'Trolling' for walleyes
Winter anglers are much more mobile since the advent of portable fish houses and power augers. But Roach takes that mobility to a new level. He'll drill dozens of holes and move from hole to hole until he finds fish. He drilled about 50 holes on our outing. The previous day he drilled around 200.
The theory: "Don't wait for the fish to come to you, go find the fish."
Said Roach: "If I'm in my boat, I don't sit in one spot all day, like people do in the winter. I move around. It's not just drilling a bunch of random holes. It's systematically drilling holes."
He looks for structure: reefs, rock piles, mud flats, weedlines. He drills at various depths around those structures. Then he drops his fish locator down, and perhaps a lure. If he doesn't find fish quickly, he's off to another hole.
"So many anglers sit out there and say the walleyes only bite at a certain time of day. A lot of times that's just when they [the fish] are moving through. It's not that they don't bite during the day, they just may not be where you are."
His solution: Go find them. It worked last week. By early afternoon Roach and his two partners had caught about two-dozen walleyes, including some outside Mille Lac's protected slot limit. Those ended up in a frying pan.
Once you locate fish, stay and catch them, Roach said. But he quickly moves at the first sign that the bite is slowing.
"The reason we had a successful morning is because we were on the right spot, and I came out the day before and drilled a lot of holes and did a lot of looking before we set up and fished," he said.
Added Roach: "A lot of people get hung up on a secret spot or a secret lure. There is no secret spot or secret lure. It's just where the fish are going to be at that particular time and what they're going to bite on. You have to be willing to move around and change."
It's in his blood
Roach's name might sound familiar. Gary Roach, Mr. Walleye, is Tony's great uncle and influenced his career. "He was a hero," Tony said. His dad, Mark Roach, also was a professional angler.
"The whole Roach family hunted and fished," Tony Roach said. "I got to see the promotional side of fishing, too, and saw there was opportunity there."
"Since I was 5 I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a professional fisherman."
When he was just 14, he fished in a small local tournament with his dad. "That really got me hooked," he said.
Roach went to college, thinking he might be a teacher. But he ended up getting into the construction business, living in St. Michael northwest of the Twin Cities. But he guided on the side. And in 2005, he decided to chase his dream. He and his wife, Sonja, sold their home and moved near Malmo, close to Lake Mille Lacs. They have two kids: Hannah, 4, and Robbie, 2.
The new career is going well, Roach said.
"It's been getting better every year. I like all of it. I like going to seminars and talking about fishing when I can't be on the water."
He's not sure what the future holds, but he enjoys every day.
"I've only been doing it for five years. I don't claim to have all the knowledge in the world. I'm just doing my own thing. And having fun doing it. Who knows where it will take me from here."
A dream come true?
"Absolutely," he said. "I'm always smiling. Every morning when I wake up I can't wait to get to work."