“There’s a nice one!” said David Keen, his fishing rod quivering as he pulled a 9-inch perch from a hole in the ice. “That’s what we’re after.”
Keen, 66, of Winona, Minn., knelt on a frozen Leech Lake — a vast white expanse dotted with an occasional fish house — and coaxed beautiful green perch from the icy water 12 feet below. Under a blue sky, the temperature hovered around minus-15 degrees. But with nary a breeze it was almost balmy compared with the previous day, when a howling wind produced a minus-30-degree windchill.
So Keen and his son, Travis, 31, also of Winona, left their heated rental ice fishing shack and angled in the open, kneeling old-style, landing an occasional perch.
“We enjoy fishing outside,” the elder Keen said. “Seems like the only way to catch them is to move around.”
That’s exactly what Tim Campbell, co-owner of Brindley’s Harbor Resort, told me and two friends when we arrived at his resort for a two-day, midweek fishing outing recently on Leech. The lake is Minnesota’s third largest, and in recent years has been a winter hot spot for perch.
“When the fish are moving, you can sit in an icehouse and do pretty good,” Campbell said. “But if they’re not moving around, you have to go after them.
“Some of our guys won’t leave an icehouse, no matter what’s happening. We have others who won’t go in the icehouse. They know the more they move around, the more fish they will catch.”
We arrived during yet another arctic blast, one of many subzero cold snaps that have pummeled Minnesota this season. A howling north wind combined with minus-20-degree temperature sent the windchill to a skin-numbing minus-30 on our first afternoon and a minus-40 that evening.
The wind rattled our heated fishhouse and we were content to stare down the luminous holes, watching small perch mostly ignore our minnows, instead of fish outside in the brutal cold. Guides Kevin Peterson and Mike Bridges drove around the lake in their pickups, drilling holes and dropping lines, fishing from their trucks through an open door, trying to find schools of perch.
They caught a few, but the action — like the weather — wasn’t hot.
“It was brutal out there,” Bridges said as he popped into our shack. “The holes kept icing up and the snow blew in them. It’s unfortunate it’s this cold.” The fish also weren’t aggressive. “We were killing ’em here earlier,” he said.
Said Campbell: “That’s what winter really is, battling Mother Nature as much as finding fish.”
Less wind, more fish
But the next day, the wind subsided when we drove across the snow-drifted lake to our rental shack. Once we got settled we ventured outside, moving 50 to 100 yards away, trying a half-dozen spots. Keen and his son, who rented a fish house near ours, did the same.
“We enjoy coming up here,” he said, jigging his rod. “For us, it’s a chance to get together.”
They occasionally pulled a perch from the depths, and so did we, finding the action sporadic. But, given the weather, we were just happy to be catching fish.
“The last two days, no one did well,” Campbell said later.
The bite was hotter earlier in the season, he said. “We sent groups home with nice batches of fish,” he said.