KELLIHER, MINN. — The busy boat ramp at Rogers Resort & Campground came to a standstill when powder blue skies over Upper Red Lake blackened with an approaching thunderstorm.
As the downpour arrived a little more than a week ago, a random group of anglers took cover in the resort’s Center Bar. Soon, they were cautiously trading secrets for catching walleyes.
“Fish in front of the flagpole a mile north of the resort.”
“Stay in 6 feet of water.”
“Troll with gold-colored spinners.”
“Spottail shiner minnows are useless bait.”
“Drop a jig at the mouth of Shotley Brook.”
Who were they kidding?
After the storm passed, the walleyes were biting all over the place — on all kinds of gear — in 3 to 7 feet of water. That was our experience fishing Red Lake for the first time. We caught our limit in two half-days while also releasing a 22-inch walleye and about 10 others that were too big or too small. Fishing with friend Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights, we also caught and released four freshwater drum.
With Upper Red Lake now in the 11th year of its remarkable comeback as a walleye fishery, the catch rate keeps improving. According to the DNR fisheries office in Bemidji, Red’s walleye fishing in the first half of June hit an exceptional high and hasn’t yet tapered off as it usually does when summer arrives and the walleyes disperse.
In fact, spawning-age fish have become so plentiful in Upper Red that the DNR last week increased the daily bag limit for walleye from three to four fish per angler — the most generous possession limit in the new era. And one fish per bag can be longer than 17 inches — a regulation that allows for the harvest of fish in a broad range of sizes.
Officials said that despite a rash of cold, windy weather that deterred fishing in May, the combined winter-summer harvest for 2015-16 should at least tie for the best take on Upper Red Lake since it reopened to walleye fishing in 2006.
“We’ve got plenty of room for the summer harvest so we hope the fishing is good,” said Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji.
“There’s not too many places where you get a catch rate of 50 or 100 fish a day,” said Gary Barnard, the region’s DNR fisheries supervisor.
In the late 1990s, after years of excessive harvesting threatened to wipe out Red Lake’s walleye population, the DNR and Red Lake Nation joined forces to shut down the fishery for seven years. In that period, three large-scale stocking events added millions of walleye fry to the lake. Now the stocking program has been shelved while the DNR and Red Lake Band oversee a joint harvest plan that governs annual walleye poundage taken from the lake.
“Right now, every fish is a result of natural reproduction,” Drewes said.
The DNR’s latest walleye gill net effort captured an average of 34.7 per gill net. Classes of fish born in 2009 and 2011 continue to dominate the population, most of those fish measuring between 14 and 17 inches. But there are other relevant classes of fish born in other years.
“Everything should be stable there for a while,” Barnard said.
Easy does it
Sixty percent of oval-shaped Upper Red Lake belongs to the area’s Chippewa. East of the lake’s dividing line, Minnesota’s jurisdiction covers 48,000 acres of water no deeper than 16 feet. There’s a shallow, underwater lip all around the shore, and Red Lake veterans such as Kenny Neu of Monticello were finding walleyes last weekend in 3 feet of water next to bulrushes.
But the majority of boats we saw were stubbornly anchored or trolling in 6 feet of water in a miles-long band from Rogers in the southeast to Washkish in the northeast. By far the biggest cluster of boats was at the mouth of the Tamarac River, a parade corridor for boats that dock at Big Bog State Recreation Area.
“It’s as easy a lake as their can be for walleye fishing,” said Dan Wilm, a frequent visitor to Upper Red.
We arrived a little before noon June 17 and waited for the thunderstorm to pass. We followed our plan of staying shallow and moving north along the shore, jigging and sometimes sweeping the bottom with a bare hook or spinner. We tipped all our hooks with spottail shiners, and Scott strategically positioned his boat over slight drop-offs, wedges or troughs along the way.
In no time, I caught the first walleye on a fire-colored jig, but it was too small to keep. We kept the next fish, a 16-incher.
Scott coaxed the 22-incher onto his chartreuse-colored jig about 4 p.m. We were trying our luck in 7 to 8 feet of water — deeper than anyone else — because the sonar was marking dense schools of fish. We stayed for an hour or so but moved toward the Tamarac when the walleyes took a break from feeding.
At the river’s mouth, there were times you could see more than 30 boats, some as close together as 10 feet. The plusses included good conversation with neighbors. The minuses included defending your turf against boat captains who elbowed in when you caught a walleye.
Early the next morning, the lake was glassy near shore, but the bite was noticeably more aggressive.
We wanted to leave Red Lake by noon but couldn’t do so without trying a spot off the beaten path. A mile from shore, we pulled up to a small ledge that was 6 feet under water and surrounded by five other boats. The people around us were catching walleyes and drum on white and pink jigs.
Following one bit of advice from the previous day’s rain delay, I tied a bare red hook, tipped it with a shiner and let it flutter to the bottom. The rig attracted our final three keepers. As we headed for shore, we talked about making a return trip.