UPPER RED LAKE — Growing up in Brainerd, Lindy Frasl learned about ice fishing at a young age. So enamored was he with the sport and the cool times it offered on winter days that he built his own shack at age 14, an 8-foot-square structure that served as an incubator of sorts for his growing interest in cold-weather angling.

More than four decades later, Lindy owns a far more extravagant "shack,'' and his fascination with winter fishing is still growing.

Last weekend, he and I and Samantha — "Sam'' — Wheeler, Lindy's girlfriend, were sitting atop 10 inches of good ice on this giant lake, jigging for walleyes while chatting about everything — and nothing.

Kicked back as we were in shirtsleeves, we could have turned on the satellite TV. But there was no need. We were happy enough to peer into a half-dozen icy cylinders while keeping an eye on the whereabouts of our baits and any fish that might be approaching them, this last information delivered courtesy of Vexilar flashers.

"When I was 14 years old, I got a job bagging groceries,'' Lindy said. "With the money I earned, I bought a three-wheeler that I used to pull my first shack onto lakes around Brainerd.''

In the years since, Lindy has built a half-dozen or so additional ice-fishing houses, the most recent ones on wheels. He uses the structures for a winter or two, before selling them to construct even bigger and better homes away from home.

Deploying fathead minnows impaled on Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, Lindy, Sam and I caught the occasional walleye, while being surprised, pleasantly, by the even more occasional crappie — these last appearing in sizes up to 13 inches.

Edie Evarts, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji, said a larger-than-usual influx of crappies was noted during Upper Red's fall fish-population survey.

"We saw a few more crappies than we have in the past,'' she said.

The three of us had gained passage onto Upper Red at JR's Corner Access in the southeastern bend of the lake. Last Saturday and Sunday was the first weekend with reasonably good ice on Upper Red, and JR's was awash in bundled-up anglers who bought bait and probed for clues about where to fish before motoring onto the ice.

No pickups were allowed onto Upper Red last weekend. Access was instead limited to skid houses and single-axle wheelhouses pulled by four-wheelers or side-by-sides. Making the necessary equipment adjustments — everyone, it seemed, had an ATV of some kind — eager anglers intent on fulfilling their recreational destinies soon erected a small city of shelters about a mile or so offshore.

A competitive bass fisherman in summer, Lindy finds winter fishing relaxing. Typically, he'll haul his wheelhouse to Upper Red for early ice action, before returning it to the Brainerd area for crappies, while also making runs to Mille Lacs. A Lake of the Woods trip is on his wintertime calendar, too, and if he gets good reports from South Dakota, he'll head there also.

"This latest house I built is eight feet by 16 feet, which is about the maximum size for a single-axle wheelhouse," Lindy said. "Of all the houses I've built, I like this one the best. It can sleep four comfortably and it pulls real easily down the road."

As Lindy spoke, Sam dished up a brunch that would rival any prepared in a fine restaurant. A friend of Lindy's from Brainerd, Tracy Karlson, who was fishing in a neighboring wheelhouse, soon joined the feast, kicking snow from his boots as he entered our warm abode.

Outside, meanwhile, temperatures hovered near 20 degrees, with a slight breeze that bent around nearby shelters filled with anglers who similarly passed the good time.

Occasionally interrupting this peaceful milieu was the welcome clatter in our house of a rattle wheel sounding its alarm, indicating one of our passive baits had found a taker. A decision then had to be made about how long to let the fish run with the bait before a hook-set was attempted.

Sam had a good knack for this, and more than once she pulled a walleye into the house from the chilled depths below. Some were keepers and some weren't, with the smaller ones probably from the lake's 2019 year class.

"Those walleyes in Upper Red are pretty abundant," said Evarts, the DNR fisheries supervisor.

As one of Minnesota's premier walleye fisheries, Upper Red is subjected to incredible angling pressure. This is particularly true in winter, when more walleyes are caught and kept by anglers than in summer.

"Last year we estimated that 240,000 pounds of walleyes were taken by anglers from Upper Red,'' Evarts said. "About 140,000 pounds were kept in winter, and 100,000 pounds in summer.''

The lake's walleye limit this winter is three, with one allowed over 17 inches. That compares to last summer's limit of four walleyes, with one over 17 inches.

"We are actively managing for optimal spawning stock to maximize the likelihood of strong year classes, which bodes well for future fishing," Evarts said. "Our fall survey indicated the walleye population is healthy and there should be an abundance of harvestable fish just under 17 inches, and always an opportunity to catch a larger fish."

It's that opportunity that keeps Lindy and Sam coming back to Upper Red winter after winter, including over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

"It was busy a few years on New Year's Day when we came up here,'' Lindy said. "The line of pickups and wheelhouses was so long at JR's, it took us four hours to get off the ice."