Crappie Days

One Week in an Ice-Fishing Shack in the Middle of the Middle of Nowhere

It's late February 2001, and I'm in the homestretch of the four-and-a-half-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Upper Red Lake. State Highway 72, a two-lane that runs due north from the village of Blackduck to the Canadian border, crosses some of Minnesota's least populated terrain, including a vast, inhospitable swath of swamp known as the Big Bog. There's very little traffic. An occasional logging truck rumbles south, bound for a wood-processing plant in Bemidji, 50 miles away. I'm going about 60 mph when a pickup whizzes by. I catch a glimpse of the driver in silhouette, hunched over the wheel in classic man-on-a-mission posture, the bill of his baseball cap pulled way down over his forehead. The truck is crammed full of gear: a portable plastic-and-canvas shelter, several plastic five-gallon buckets, a power auger.

The hallmarks of an ice fisherman.

The speedster, I surmise, is trying to make it to Red Lake in time for the evening bite. That's when the black crappies are said to turn on, and black crappies are what bring the anglers to Red Lake these days. Me, I'm not in a big rush. I'm about to spend an entire week in an ice-fishing shack, and truth be told, I'm feeling a touch ambivalent about the prospect.

In January and early February, I spent a half-dozen afternoons and evenings ice fishing on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. Like most of my previous outings on the ice, these endeavors were futile. I jigged minnows, and wax worms, and lures. I fished deep. I fished shallow. I caught nothing. I got cold. Maybe I just needed to get out of town, I thought, try some new waters. And then I remembered a conversation I'd had about a half a year earlier. I was hanging out with a professional wrestler named Charlie Norris, sitting in his Coon Rapids living room watching Smackdown! and talking about the vagaries of the wrestling business. As the night wore on, Norris began to speak wistfully about the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where he is enrolled. He hadn't been there in a while, he said, but he was hoping to get up soon for some fishing.

And then he told me a story I was to hear over and over again in the months that followed. There would be minor variations in the details, but the thrust was always the same: A couple of years ago, a pilot--maybe he was flying a helicopter, maybe an airplane--passed over Red Lake. Peering down, he saw what appeared to be a massive oil slick. But it wasn't an oil slick. It was a school of black crappies, moving into the shallows to spawn. The school was a mile long and a quarter-mile wide. Or maybe it was two miles long and a half-mile wide.

I didn't quite know what to make of the story. It seemed like a stretch. Of course, the best fish stories are almost always hard to believe. Even the honest angler sometimes slips into the embellishment trap--a three-pound fish becomes a four-pound fish, or five, or years later maybe even six or seven. Still, I was intrigued. After all, crappies do tend to form big schools, and Red Lake is a very big lake.

 

It's dusk when I arrive in Waskish, the little blip of a town on the northeast corner of Upper Red Lake. Had I not been paying close attention, I might well have passed by without noticing. A handful of businesses are scattered along either side of the highway that runs through the town: a bait shop called the Waskish Minnow Station, a bar, a convenience store, a few shuttered resorts--evidence of the area's recent hard times. About three miles north of town, I reach Hudec's Resort. Aside from the newish nine-room motel that sits at the rear of the property, the place is frozen in time, a mom-and-pop operation of the sort one sees less and less of in these amenity-laden days. The half-dozen or so cabins appear to have been plopped down randomly amid scrubby clumps of spruce, tamarack, and aspen. A plowed path leads out to the lake, where a hand-lettered sign reads "Road Access Five Dollars, Pay in Bar."

I stop in. An old Hudec's bumper sticker ("Save Our Deer, Eat a Wolf") is plastered to the wall. A glass cabinet on the other side of the room showcases a stringer of stuffed fish. I can't help but gawk. They look like crappies--with the distinctive oblong shape, silvery with black speckles, and pleasing iridescence--but at two to three pounds apiece, these are freakishly large specimens. While the black crappie is a common and widely distributed fish--found in every state in the lower 48--the vast majority of crappie anglers regard themselves as lucky to catch a one-pound fish. A two-pound crappie is a rarity. A stringer full of them is a gross anomaly--and a hell of an advertisement.

The bartender, a woman named Debbie with a blond ponytail and teased bangs, is serving up cans of beer and setups to a couple of grizzled characters who are working their way through a stack of pulltabs. I ask Debbie where I can find Donnie Hudec, with whom I'd made arrangements to rent a sleeper shack. "He's out there somewhere. You can't miss him. He's in the green truck with the plow," she says, pointing a finger out the window into the fading light, where a line of trucks is proceeding at a stately pace to the crappie flats: the massive shelf of ten-to-fourteen-foot-deep water about four miles from shore, where the ice fishermen of Upper Red Lake have set up their winter village.

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