WASKISH, Minn. – The first hard walleye bite of the day was a no-doubter that jacked Tim McBride’s line as if to say, “You found us.”
It was 3 p.m. on an overcast Sunday afternoon on Red Lake and the weekend’s fishing had only been so-so. Now we were joyously bobbing in 2- to 3-foot waves, hooking plump 16-inchers nearly every time we passed over a 30-foot-wide honey hole of hungry fish. The “whitecaps” were the color of root beer, cresting all around us as we hovered in just 4.2 feet of churning water.
“If the boat sinks, we can just stand on it and fish from there,” said Scott Ward, our captain.
Mid-September fishing on Upper Red Lake was nothing like it was in mid-June. Back then, fishing boats invaded the flat calm shallows along the east shore like so many ants at a picnic. If you were fishing in 3 to 5 feet of water, you were catching walleyes — and probably holding a conversation with someone in a neighboring boat.
During our return trip — a cast and blast outing designed to include a round of grouse hunting — the lake was desolate and the walleyes were mysteriously spread out. Here and there, someone in our party of eight would catch one while trolling a crankbait, jigging with a fathead or pulling a live bait rig decorated with a twirling blade. We caught them sporadically, sometimes as deep as 11 feet and as shallow as 3 feet.
But the results didn’t matter as much as getting away into the northwoods to be amid friends, changing colors, cool air and the lower sun angles that mark the change of season.
The group plan was to get cooperation from the walleyes on Friday and Saturday, then spend part of Sunday walking the forest. We knew we were early for the grouse, especially with the area’s aspen trees still full of green leaves. But we were happy to pack the shotguns knowing we’d be in some of the best grouse territory in the country on the season’s opening weekend.
Before the trip, Meadow Kouffeld-Hansen, a wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society in Grand Rapids, talked about a recently upgraded walking trail between the tiny towns of Kelliher and Mizpah, not far from Upper Red. If we could navigate our vehicles over a route of logging roads, we’d be lucky enough to check out the South Brush Wolf Walking Trail.
“We finished it just three weeks ago,” said Danae Schafer, Koochiching County Assistant Land Commissioner. “It’s a two-mile loop and we worked with the Ruffed Grouse Society to widen it and level it out.”
Schafer, a grouse hunter herself, said the county manages most of its trails for multiuse purposes, including grouse hunts conducted with all-terrain vehicles. Just a few county-managed trails are designated purely for walking hunters and their dogs, she said. But the central northwoods area north, south and east of Red Lake is home to miles of other hunter walking trails — including several in Pine Island State Forest, the largest of Minnesota’s 58 state forests.
The state trails, most of them with signs, provide easy access to areas where small game such as grouse and woodcock may abound. This fall, wildlife officials say, the grouse population is trending upward and hunting should be good.
“October is the good time for grouse hunting up here,” Schafer said. “And not just around there [Red Lake], but over our whole county.”
Big Bog quiet now
Our four-day trip was enhanced by pleasant accommodations at Big Bog State Recreation Area, where we stayed in simple cabins and docked on the Tamarack River. Only half-full of campers, the well-kept park felt like a retreat grounds.
In June, the Tamarack was an overcrowded runway for boat traffic. Besides harboring the maximum number of vessels for June campground visitors, the river provided a landing for the nonstop flow of anglers who arrived via State Highway 72. Three months later, the river was serene, the campground docks were largely vacated and the public boat launch was as empty as a church parking lot on a Wednesday afternoon.
Red Lake’s steady winds, heavy chop and threatening skies surely kept some people away. But the conditions weren’t bad enough to entirely shut down the fishing.
On Friday afternoon, six of us split into two boats, the second of which was skippered by Scott’s son, Chris Ward of South St. Paul. The two boats stuck together at first, visiting a rock pile a mile away from the Tamarack that was highly productive in June. We caught two walleyes there and several drum, or sheepshead. but the action was too slow.
Chris and his group broke off to troll No. 5 Rapalas over a long, shallow reef while Scott headed for the lakes’s north end to jig with minnows near shore. Our hit-and-miss approach carried on into Saturday morning, when we finally started catching small walleyes with some consistency while in 4 feet of water near weeds and rock spines on the north end.
That general description fit several spots. It was information graciously supplied to us by Dan Wilm, a retired DNR forester and friend who texted the tip by phone. He had other pals who also happened to be fishing on Red Lake.
By day’s end we had enough small walleyes for dinner. And by popular demand, that meant we’d be eating at nearby West Wind Resort. For $12 per angler, the restaurant fried our fillets and presented them with side dishes and salad. The “hook and cook” special drew us back once again on Saturday when we had even bigger fish to fry.
Scott and Tim were able to break out their shotguns en route to Red Lake, stopping as they did in Grand Rapids to shoot trap at the local gun range. But that turned out to be the only shooting that our group could muster. Instead, we ran out the clock in pursuit of a memorable walleye bite, and we weren’t disappointed.