An adjusted slot limit and a 1999-2003 walleye restocking translates to satisfying ice fishing on the lake this winter.
ON UPPER RED LAKE - If you have the option, choose ice fishing to resolve your modern problems, rather than a frontal lobotomy. I say this not knowing much about frontal lobotomies, except for the old saw that argues, "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.''
But perhaps I'm off topic. The point is that time on the ice is time well spent. Granted, this is a peculiarly regional form of recreation, and its beneficial effects, say, on Southerners have not been confirmed. It's quite possible a mutant gene brought over from one of the Old Countries and plopped down somewhere along the North Shore by an émigré was the start of it all.
Of course, all of this carries with it an asterisk of speculation. No one really knows why ice fishing is so popular in Minnesota. Or so relaxing.
It just is.
I was reassured of this Wednesday morning when I creaked open the door to the fish house that my son, Trevor, and I had rented on Upper Red. The wind had blown all night, carrying snow sideways, a real killer blizzard that suggested the frailty of all life.
Maybe 100 yards away was another shack, and for the first time in 12 hours I dared venture that distance without risking inclusion in a Department of Natural Resources highlight reel of winter casualties. Had I found within it Ole and Sven themselves, frozen stiff, peering into icy cylinders, a half-empty bottle of Yukon Jack between them as testament to what was important in their final hours, I wouldn't have been surprised.
Instead, alive and well thereabouts were Paul and Tammy Pfannenstein, four days on the ice and happy as larks. They and their friends, they reported, inhabited all of the shacks in the area, each a member of, or related to a member of, the Smok'n Guns, a St. Cloud country-music band.
"We play on weekends, so we have to fish during the week,'' said Paul, who plucks bass and sings. "For us it's just very relaxing and a nice break from playing. If we catch a few fish, that's a bonus.''
• • •
Most everyone who lives near Upper Red this winter, or has fished it, is upbeat.
That's because the DNR announced in October it would widen the slot of walleyes that could be kept from the lake, from those under 17 inches (with one over 26) to those under 20 inches (also with one over 26).
The limit would remain at four. But the slot enlargement meant the chances of catching a limit that included some really plump fish between 17 and 20 inches was greatly enhanced.
The move was made, the DNR said, to allow anglers to more fully utilize the lake's plentiful walleyes.
"It's made a big difference up here,'' said Spider Johnson, a longtime friend who rents fish houses in winter and guides on the lake in summer. "People always did catch a lot of fish on the lake. Now they're being allowed to keep more of what they catch, and more big fish.''
Which is what Trevor -- home from college for a few weeks -- and I had in mind. Armed with jigging rods, small spoons of various colors and a bucket of minnows, we arrived at Upper Red about midafternoon Tuesday. Straightaway, we motored to one of Spider's rental houses about 2 miles from shore.
"Fishing was fantastic in December,'' Spider said. In fact, the DNR reported that some 51,000 pounds of walleyes were pulled from the lake that month. "On some days it's a little slower than others, depending on the weather. But people are still catching fish.''
Trevor and I had walleyes on our lines almost from the get-go. The first ones were small and were sent swimming back down our holes. But before long a 15-incher popped up, then one an inch or so longer, good eaters both.
Outside, from the west, the wind howled, gathering snow in whipped drifts. I thought: You wouldn't want to be fishing in a portable. You'd be blown away.
Meanwhile, the rattle wheels on the walls of our shack sang their sweet songs, while Trevor and I also jigged.
Some skill was involved. But basically we impaled minnow tails with small spoons, "flashed'' the spoons with high-intensity light until they glowed, dropped the rigs to the bottom ...
Before long, curled in a bucket, we had three keepers, each taken in the hour or so on either side of sunset.
It was then we decided to drive to shore for dinner at West Wind Resort (www.westwindwaskish.com).
Power would be by four-wheel-drive. Navigation by GPS. Otherwise we'd be lost in the maelstrom of blowing snow.
• • •
The biggest walleye we would catch pushed 18 1/2 inches, a plump specimen, one of five fish we took off the ice with us midway through morning Wednesday.
We returned perhaps twice that number to the lake, and we missed that many again.
All good -- especially considering the storm that had enveloped the lake, and considering as well that Upper Red, together with Lower Red, which is controlled by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, were considered fairly deplete of walleyes in the mid-1990s.
The lakes' rebirth was fueled by the stocking of millions of walleye fry in 1999, 2001 and 2003 at a shared cost between the state and the band of about $500,000.
A great investment, everyone agrees, country musicians included.
"This is our third time up here,'' Paul Pfannenstein said. "We really like it.
"It's just a relaxing thing to do.''
Editor's note: Spider Johnson's fish-house rental contact phone number is 320-304-1617.
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