Ice fishing on Upper Red

Recently, I went ice fishing on Upper Red Lake in northern Minnesota. It’s the largest inland lake in the state, split into two basins – upper and lower. The lower portion and over half the upper are under authority of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. The remaining portion of the upper basin is open to anyone.

I’ve been walleye fishing on Upper Red Lake several times during spring, summer, and winter. This trip was the second I’d taken during wintertime. And it had been several months since I’d gone walleye fishing – during any season. I was ready.

My fishing buddy and I left in the morning. We had about a two-and-a-half-hour drive. It was -26 degrees outside. Brrr. We planned on fishing that afternoon and keeping at it until the next morning, about 20 hours of fishing. Yes, middle of the night fishing was on the agenda; the ice fishing shanty we rented had rattle wheels. I’ll explain more about that later.

By the time we got to the lake it was -6, a 20-degree improvement. The sky was sunny as we drove onto the plowed road that crossed the icy lake. We had a five-mile drive to get to the fishing house. In the distance I could see many fishing houses spotting the horizon. Is it just me or are the ice fishing communities situated on frozen lakes a little crazy?

I noticed there were some cracks in the ice. Very small cracks. Nothing to cause concern, but I’ve been on a big lake with an ice crack as wide as a sidewalk. There was a metal bridge across it so vehicles could cross the watery gap and get to the good ice fishing spots. Yeah, a “river” in the middle of a frozen lake that full-size pickups drove across so anglers could find fish. But not before exposing more lake water by drilling holes in the ice.

It’s not just me.

It’s crazy.
We’re nuts.
And I love it!

Two miles in: I could see the fishing villages more clearly. Three miles in: we stopped and waited for the guide to meet up and bring us to the shanty. We didn’t wait long before “Cookie” showed up. He is the owner of Cookie’s on Upper Red Lake, a fishing biz for fishing enthusiasts. He pulled up in an old blue pickup with a plow on front, a spare tire hanging from a rope off the back, chains on tires, and a heap of gear in the open bed. We followed him to our destination. House #8.

My fishing buddy had a goal to have minnows in the water by 2 p.m. Thanks to him, the goal was met. My prediction was the first fish would be caught just after 3:30. It almost came true. A rattle wheel went off but by the time the line was pulled in, the minnow was gone, and no fish was on the hook. Rats!

Just after five, a guy who works with Cookie stopped by. We were still waiting for our first fish. He mentioned the fishing had been good between 1 and 5 a.m. That was where the rattle wheels came in handy. If you’ve never used one – or even heard of one (as I hadn’t until just a year prior) – they are very cool fishing reels. They are mounted wheels wound with sturdy line. All you need to do is put some bait on the hook and lower it into the water. If a fish bites, a bell alarms and you simply reel in your catch. Easy!

We baited rattle wheels and left them to fish all night while we slept. Well, my fishing buddy did. I can’t take credit for the rigging of our gear; I was privileged to simply fish. And wait. And fish. And wait… The first walleye was hooked around 5:30 p.m. It was on a rattle wheel, and I pulled it in. Just under 17 inches. Nice!

17″ walleye from Upper Red Lake in Minnesota. PC: fishing buddy Mark.

During a photo shoot, the fish flipped out of my hands. Twice. The second time it flipped up and slapped me on the face. Right cheek tail slap from a walleye. A first for me. The second walleye caught was also about 17 inches. It was another rattle wheel victim and, since I was closer to the rig, I pulled it up as well. Then, my fishing buddy caught a 12-inch crappie. He caught it with an ice-fishing rod he was using to jig. It was a nice surprise and a good-sized crappie.

We lost a few. The bite was light and oftentimes the rattle wheels tinkled more than rang the alarm bell. We heard the fishing was slow for a lot of folks, not just us (which made us feel better). In the morning, the wind was whipping across the lake at about 30 MPH. There was snow slated for a couple hours later. We decided to pack it in. The fish weren’t biting, and visibility could have become an issue once the snow started. We left with three fish, not as many as we would have liked, but it was still a great time.

For me, fishing is great fun and relaxation no matter how many I catch. And there are always the fish tales to tell. Or, in my case, fish tail – right in the face. It’s a story I’ll tell many times, I’m sure. Remember the year we went ice fishing on Upper Red and the 25-inch walleye slapped me in the face? (Yeah, I know… it was 17 inches. But, hey, it’s a fish tale!)