Open Season: Good fish come to those who work
A slab of sapphire ice a foot-and-a-half thick and the size of a dinner table jutted forth from Red Lake like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Around it, haphazardly stacked solidified lake hunks of roughly the same size laid scattered in rows. They were the results of pressure ridges - gnarly evidence of powerful, invisible underwater forces - which crisscrossed the landscape in a network of broken zippers that stretched to the horizon.
It was Saturday, and fellow Fargo resident, Adam "AC" Christensen, and I were sitting in his flip-top ice fishing shack, staring down twin auger-drilled holes into the stained waters of one of Minnesota's top walleye factories.
The early, magenta glow of sunrise gradually intensified, and with it the first bite of morning.
A sizable blip of orange appeared on my Marcum LX-I, a flasher-style electronic depth finder, and quickly rose to the weaker green signal that was my golden rattling spoon.
Clenched tightly in my fist, I gave the fishing rod a slight, quivering jig.
That was all it took.
The tell-tale thump from the fish's bite sent my arm instinctively skyward in a strong hook set. A brief battle ensued, but shortly thereafter a fat, eater-sized walleye splashed to the top of the hole.
"Nice fish," AC said, offering his hand for a high-five.
I heartily obliged, and after a quick tape check verified the walleye was indeed below the 17-inch slot, it was sent out onto the alien world of ice to freeze before the long trip home.
AC picked up a smaller eye a few minutes later, and we were kept busy by a smattering of wayward perch. But as the winter sun slipped higher across the southern horizon the bite eventually died, and we decided to hoof it back to our rented permanent ice house a hundred yards away.
World of snow and fog
The vertigo was nauseating as our three-vehicle convoy edged over the shoreline and onto iced-over Red Lake. With so much surrounding whiteness, it was tough to tell if we were moving or standing still.
I tightly closed my eyes to fight back bile that tickled my esophagus.
We were on a plowed road, that was certain, but where it went and where we'd come from could nary be deciphered through the chokingly thick fog. It hung like a sopping blanket, draped between the branches of bristled pines and barren poplars.
We'd gone maybe 50 yards before the fog swallowed any evidence of terra firma. Other than what ice lay in our immediate vicinity, it was hard telling where the white snow stopped and ghostly fog started.
Eventually, word was reported to follow the trail out and to the right, but first we had to cross the slushy gap of a pressure ridge. Three thin steel plates were all that stood between our laden truck tires and the bottom of Red Lake.
For once, I was thankful to be last in line.
After that, it was as simple as following the road. Except unlike most modern byways designed by civil engineers, this one resembled something out of ancient Rome, where a central point blossomed like a flower as roads bloomed out in numerous directions.
We took the right branch - or one of them.
Lucky for us, a Sherpa came to lead the way. Mark, of Battle River Rentals, met us a few hundred yards along and led us gingerly to our awaiting, four-bunk, pre-heated ice shanties.
With the harrowing start of our trip behind us, it did not take long to get down to why we descended upon Red Lake for the weekend: ice fishing.
For the next couple days, there doubtful was a time when a fishing line was not in the water. Granted, the action was not as fast and furious as we'd hoped, but after friend Andrew Thill proceeded to put on a clinic in walleye fishing the first evening, I decided the remainder of my time would be spent getting the upper hand.
Getting away from it all
Saturday morning's excursion with AC, although still not quite up to par with what we had hoped, proved an inkling I had about where we might find fish. After a quick breakfast of biscuits and gravy, I excused myself and made a plan to fish solo in hopes of finding the mother lode.
There was no rhyme or reason to my voyage. I simply decided to get away from the small shanty town that blossomed on the ice, in an effort to find virgin ground boasting hungry walleyes.
Roughly a half mile from camp, I punched two holes, set up my humble one-man portable shack, and got to fishing.
The two eater walleyes within 15 minutes proved my choice was a good one.
Soon after, plump, jumbo perch began to assault my jig, and it was all I could do to reel in and re-bait as quickly as possible.
A pile of fish gradually grew outside my door.
But I felt wrong keeping such good fishing to myself, so as my bait reserves dwindled, I scurried back to camp to scrounge up fresh minnows and extra anglers.
Brothers Josh and Corey Brottlund followed me back, and a bit later, so did AC. We fished until dark, the lot of us pulling in walleyes and perch nearly hand over fist.
Then as the sun set and light faded, so did the bite.
The following morning, any remaining fish ceased to cooperate. And as fog from our first day threatened to descend once again, we called it a trip.
In all, we'd accomplished what we came for: there were many laughs, much fun, and plenty of fish for everyone.
And in the end, that's all that matters.