UPPER RED LAKE, Minn. – The electric trolling motor on the bow of our fishing boat rattled in its horizontal mount as we pounded across 4-foot swells of foaming, root beer-colored water en route to a promising jigging hole.
The boat belly-flopped into the ebb of a big wave, springing the motor upright, then down with a loud clunk. Not good.
Chris Ward scrambled across the boat’s elevated front deck on all fours, reaching for the motor’s stainless steel shaft with one hand while gripping the upper edge of the boat’s right side with the other. We were 5 miles offshore in dizzying swells with winds gusting up to 20 miles per hour. From his knees, Chris wrestled the motor upward and snapped it back in place.
“Got it!” he said.
Sweeping west winds and monster waves drive anglers off this famous walleye lake with surprising regularity. But for those who battle the supersized chop, as we did on Father’s Day, there are fish to be caught.
In the span of one hour during late morning, our crew of Chris, from South St. Paul; his dad, Scott Ward, from Inver Grove Heights; and my 8-year-old son, Jack, hauled in 12 nice keepers and 12 fun-packed drum, or sheepshead. The frenzy happened in isolation — away from scores of boats docked in the lake’s safe harbors.
“Pretty sure that’s record timing for us catching our limit,’’ Scott said.
It’s not that the wind blows harder across this part of northern Beltrami County than it does in other parts of the state. Rather, there’s nothing to block it. Twenty miles of open water separates the east and west shores of Upper Red. Compounding the situation, state-licensed anglers are confined to fishing on the lake’s east side, fully exposed to prevailing winds from the west. The lee side of the lake belongs to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
“When it blows, there’s no way to get away from it,’’ said Gary Barnard, Bemidji area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Barnard said the winds are a significant consideration in managing the lake’s walleye population. Annual safe harvest limits are set knowing that rolling waves on many May and June days will minimize fishing pressure.
In fact, walleyes are harvested in larger numbers on Upper Red Lake when it’s covered by ice. On average, 60 percent of walleyes caught by state-licensed anglers are hooked during winter.
“It’s really skewed towards winter,” Barnard said. “It’s always been that way.”
Upper Red Lake’s fishing seasons break down into four distinct segments, with consecutively diminishing returns. There’s winter, then the latter half of May, followed by the former half of June, ending with the period that spans June 16 through freeze-up. Barnard illustrated the point with the DNR’s most recent batch of numerical statistics:
For the ice-fishing season that started Dec. 1, 2016, state-licensed anglers hooked and kept more than 100,000 pounds of Upper Red Lake walleyes. From Opening Day on May 13, 2017, through May 31, boaters hauled in another 49,000 pounds of the state fish. Over the first 15 days of June, the combined walleye catch was 16,000 pounds. For the balance of 2017, the agency predicts an additional Red Lake walleye harvest of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds.
Barnard said May is by far the most productive time for open-water walleye fishing on Upper Red because most of the population is feeding near shore, in depths of 2 to 6 feet of water.
“They’re stacked up on shore and very vulnerable,” he said.
Good fishing lingers into June, but bigger walleyes move deeper as the days pass. Juvenile fish continue to feed near shore, but lots of the walleye action subsides by the end of the month — sometimes hanging on for a short stretch if the weather is cool, Barnard said.
The themes rang true last weekend. When we checked into our camper cabin at Big Bog State Recreation Area in Waskish, the assistant park ranger was apologetic about the walleye outlook.
“It’s been pretty windy ... kind of tough lately,’’ she said. “People are having a hard time getting out.’’
Indeed, wind data kept by iwindsurf.com showed high winds for five of the previous seven days, often with gusts exceeding 20 mph.
Local DNR conservation officer Kyle Quittschreiber said most Red Lake visitors are familiar with the risk of getting blown off the lake. Some people cut their trips short, while others enjoy time in the lake’s surrounding campgrounds.
Despite a windy month of June, Quittschreiber said, interest in attempting to fish on Red Lake has increased this year along with a higher bag limit. Walleye abundance in the lake prompted the DNR this year to raise the possession limit from three to four walleyes. Only one fish per bag can exceed 17 inches in length.
On the Saturday afternoon of our check-in, winds were tolerable and boats were active. In the shallows where we started to fish with jigs and shiners on the lake’s north side, the bite was slow. Twenty minutes after Scott and Chris caught smallish walleyes, we headed out to a reef in deeper water. As the west wind picked up, we were happy to be cutting through the waves in Scott’s deep-hulled, 18.5-foot-long boat, a G3.
The churning water in our selected fishing spot was rife with hungry walleyes. The trolling motor held us in place above a drop-off on the edge of a sunken island. Chris single-handedly caught enough fish for dinner.
It was on our return to the hot spot the next morning when all of us got in on the action.
Walleyes and sheepsheads bent our rods at such a pace that our landing net couldn’t keep up. We were bouncing off each other as the boat dipped and swayed. Lines crossed, and cameras were in high gear.
At the height of the chaos, Scott called a timeout.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,’’ he said. “Happy Father’s Day.’’