ON MILLE LACS
On Tuesday a low gray sky hung over this lake’s blanket of ice, and fishing was pretty good. That’s right: Here on Mille Lacs, fishing was pretty good.
Certainly it was good enough for the four guys holed up not far from the home-away-from-home that my son Cole and I inhabited.
This bunch was from Indiana, each from the Indianapolis area except for a week or so each winter, when they come to Minnesota to peer through icy holes, play cards, catch fish, cook, eat, drink, talk — and never leave the lake.
Not usually, anyway.
“We like it out here,” 3 miles or so from shore, said Willy Adkins, 64, who this year made his 42nd consecutive cold-weather fishing trip to Minnesota. “It takes a couple days to get your head right. But it happens. It’s so peaceful.’’
Call it a change of latitude, a change of attitude.
Except that the gentle Caribbean breezes extolled in Jimmy Buffett’s 1977 album of about the same name are replaced here by a white expanse of snow and ice that stretches nearly uninterrupted as far as the eye can see.
Nighttime is the exception.
That’s when the insides of occupied fish houses that dot the lake’s frozen surface brighten, and when cabin and house lights encircling this huge lake twinkle like beacons.
Even in years when blizzards at times have howled across Mille Lacs, reducing visibility to guesswork, Willy, his brother, Ron, 61, nephew Russ, 35, and buddy Rick Atkins (slightly different spelling, no relation) are comfortable in their seasonal abode.
“We’ve been out here in storms when we just knew that outside our door lay certain death,” Rick said. “But inside, we were comfortable.”
The Hoosier clan rents their house from Kevin and Karen McQuoid, owners since 1993 of Mac’s Twin Bay Resort on Mille Lacs.
Deluxe in its appointments, with four bunks, a cook stove, TV, radio, bathroom and, importantly, eight fishing holes with rattle reels, the 12-by-20 foot-carpeted structure dispels quickly any belief that its inhabitants are roughing it.
“The McQuoids take care of us,” Rick said. “Every day someone comes out to pick up our garbage, clean the bathroom, check to make sure we have enough LP gas and change our battery, if necessary.”
All the while, day and night, fishing occurs.
“It’s been decent,” Willy said of the fishing — and catching.
Most walleyes hooked by the group last week were in the 13- to 14-inch range, specimens of the lake’s much-ballyhooed 2013 walleye hatch.
DNR fisheries managers hope this bountiful year class can remain flush into maturity, unlike a series of previous hatches that largely disappeared, probably at the hands of predators, including larger walleyes.
“We’ve had some bigger fish, too,” Willy said. “Russ caught a 20-incher and a 26-incher.”
• • •
Cole and I also rented from Mac’s Twin Bay, realizing as we did that luck would have to be on our side to land a couple of keeper walleyes. One-walleye-per-angler limits reign on Mille Lacs this winter, and kept fish must be between 18 and 20 inches.
The DNR imposed the restriction to conserve the lake’s breeding walleyes, after Mille Lacs surveys showed the population hovering near all-time lows.
Walleye fishing was halted on Mille Lacs in August, after the DNR said the lake’s minimalist seasonal walleye angling quota had been met.
Resort owners worried — for good reason — that winter walleye fishing on the big lake might also be sidelined. Historically, for some Mille Lacs area businesses, winter revenues exceed summer’s.
Even a brief drive around the big lake shows why. Cash registers ring all winter when bait is sold, dinners are ordered, motel rooms are rented, gas tanks are topped off, ice roads are accessed and fish houses are occupied.
Most of these transactions are dependent on the availability of walleyes.
The house Cole and I inhabited was fit for a king — and for the walleyes we pulled through its holes.
A hands-on angler, Cole often prefers to wiggle small minnow-baited spoons near the bottom when fishing walleyes, suspending the baits higher in the water column as necessary to find fish.
As likely, he’ll tie on a #7 Jigging Rapala to fool walleyes, preferring the lifting and falling action that enlivens the lure to dead-sticking a fathead or shiner on a bare hook.
A feisty dude, this was a 14.5-inch walleye Cole pulled through the ice, healthy in its flanks, green and gold in its coloring.
A short while earlier, while visiting our Indiana neighbors, I watched as Russ hand-over-handed a nearly identical fish, surprising the walleye, no doubt, when it emerged from the darkened depths below into a warm house, whose inhabitants bore stubbly beards, with cards on the table and chili on the stove.
Russ’ fish was caught on a minnow and plain hook that swung in 30 feet of water from a wall-mounted rattle wheel.
When I returned to our house, Cole lay sprawled on a bunk, ears alert for the sweet music of a rattle wheel gone spinning.
Between 4:30 and 6 in the evening, as darkness fell with the outside temperature, one rattle wheel sung, then another.
Then two of the wheels peeled off line at the same time.
Hopping from the bunk, Cole caught his fish.
I missed mine.
In the distance, the lake’s shoreline lights sparkled.
“It’s a good life out here,” I said.
Then another rattle wheel rattled.
So it went Tuesday on Mille Lacs.