Crappie Days

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

 

Three years ago hardly anybody bothered to fish on Upper Red Lake, and nobody fished it for crappie. Few people, other than a handful of locals, even knew the lake had any crappies. For most of its history, Red Lake was regarded as a walleye lake--as one of Minnesota's great natural walleye factories, in fact. The Department of Natural Resources used to run a hatchery operation here, and for most of the 20th Century Red Lake was the only commercial fishery in the state. Like many of the early white settlers, Donnie Hudec's grandfather Joseph used to net walleyes. But since the 1930s, commercial fishing has been reserved solely for residents of the Red Lake Indian Reservation--a chronic source of resentment for many non-Indians in the area.

Tensions over Indian netting worsened in the mid-1990s when Red Lake's walleye population suddenly crashed. The commercial harvest, which once yielded close to a million pounds of fillets a year, plummeted to less than 14,000 pounds. In part the collapse was caused by a change in net size. About a decade ago commercial demand increased for yellow perch (the walleye's smaller cousin), and many of Red Lake's Indian netters switched to a smaller mesh. That meant more young walleyes were snared in the nets, which cut into the number of fish that reached the age of sexual maturity. Pretty soon the sport fishermen were no longer catching their daily limit of six walleyes.

As the fishing dropped off, the tourists stopped coming. One by one, the dozen or so mom-and-pop resorts scattered along the east side of Upper Red Lake--the only part of the lake that lies outside the reservation boundaries--began to fold. Eventually only Hudec's Resort remained open, a fact Donnie Hudec attributes to the frugal business approach of his late father, Ed. "The old man didn't sink a lot of dough into anything. Never mortgaged anything," he says. "He just sat here and waited for the fish to come back."

By 1997 the situation had grown so dire that the tribal government put a halt to all commercial fishing on the reservation portions of the lake. Two years later the Department of Natural Resources banned sport fishing for walleye on the lake as well. To this day, anglers who catch walleyes on Upper Red Lake are required to release them immediately. (Only tribal members are permitted to fish on Lower Red Lake.) The DNR and the tribe, meanwhile, have embarked on a collaborative effort to restore walleye to the lake. In 1999, the first year of stocking, 41 million newly hatched walleye were released into the lake.

In early 1999, just when it looked as if things couldn't get any worse, a funny thing happened. A small group of die-hard locals went out perch fishing and stumbled onto some unusually big black crappies. Historically, crappies were a secondary species in the lake and never existed in sufficient numbers to attract much attention. "We always knew there were crappies in the lake, and when I was a kid we used to fish for 'em in the spring, when they'd come into the channels to spawn," Hudec recalls. Now, it seemed, the collapse of the walleye population had created a niche in the ecosystem, and crappies were filling it with a vengeance.

By March of that first year, word of the unusual crappie bite on Upper Red Lake was spreading. "In a couple of weeks, we had a thousand cars on the lake," Hudec remembers. "There were some decent crowds. But the real rush didn't begin until the next year. And once people saw how big the fish were, it just exploded."

Babe Winkelman, host of a nationally syndicated fishing show, visited with his crew in the spring of 1999 and captured the crappie miracle for posterity. The Winkelman show aired on New Year's Day 2000, and the phone at Hudec's began to ring. "It just took off. We must have had 500 calls that day alone," Hudec says. The Internet, too, became a conduit, as anglers began posting about the Red Lake boom on fishing forums like FishingMinnesota.com, signing their posts "Masterbaiter" and "Slab Hunter" and "Dr. Crappie." And then, of course, there was word of mouth, stories about schools of crappies so big that from above they looked like an oil slick.

 

 

I stop in at the bar for a bite to eat and, if I'm lucky, a fishing companion for the day. When I ask Debbie the bartender where I can find Hudec, she says offhandedly, "Oh, he's out on the lake with the plow. We've already had three 911 calls." My decision to abandon the sleeper last night turns out to have been a good one: Hudec's ice roads have drifted over in the night, and now, with the wind still blowing, he's rescuing fishermen who got stuck, and waiting for the weather to break. There'll be no fishing today.

As the morning wears on, the bar slowly fills. Debbie warns off fishermen looking for road-access passes. "We've got white-out conditions, so we're not advising anyone to go out," she says again and again. At one point a scraggly-looking trio bursts in, red-eyed and greasy-haired and reeking of bad luck. In short order, they are sharing their tale of woe with their fellow patrons. They came up three days ago. First their truck broke down, so they rented a sedan in Bemidji. They fished for three days out of a sleeper house and caught nothing but little perch, not a single crappie. Then last night their sedan got hung up in a snowdrift out on the lake. Unable to dig it out, they tried to call for help on a cell phone, but the battery was dead. In the end they hunkered down in their fish shack and waited for Hudec to come plow them out. Their truck's still in Bemidji awaiting a part, and they're stranded. "We're not gonna get back to the Cities until Tuesday at the earliest," says one, clutching a fifth of Canadian whiskey. "I feel like someone shoved a horseshoe up my ass." They order setups.

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