Crappie Days

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

Later that day I track down the pair in the shack they've rented from Hudec. It's got ten holes, so there's plenty of room. To my surprise, I also find Mark Vicha perched in a seat in the middle of the shack, with his old stick poles. Cheri wasn't kidding about the shopping spree. She and Joann have all the latest in ice-fishing gadgets. A Vexilar depth finder. A bunch of graphite ice-fishing poles with top-of-the-line reels and burnished wood handles. Boxes of jigs in every color and size. They've even set up one of Cheri's underwater cameras so they can watch their jigs. The camera proves to be a disappointment. The water in Red Lake is stained, and visibility is only a couple of feet. Occasionally we can make out a fuzzy image of a perch, and there's some excitement when Joann spots a hammer sitting on the lake bottom. In addition to the fishing gear, the women have brought an ample spread of snacks--carrots, grapefruit, granola, and diet Cokes. Not only have I seen remarkably few women in the past week; this is the first time since I arrived that I've laid eyes on a single item of fresh produce.

The fishing is slow. Only Vicha, with his old-school gear, is catching any crappies. Cheri is quick to experiment with different approaches. She grabs a fathead from a bucket and casually pinches it in half with her finger. "It's better than cutting it with a knife. You want to have some of the entrails hanging out. The fish can smell it better," she explains as she tips her jig with minnow head.

"Jeez, what are you doing there?" Cheri finally asks Vicha. She studies his technique closely, then emulates it. After a time she jigs up a cigar-size walleye--which, by regulation, she has to throw back. Still, it's a good sign, and she holds up it for the obligatory snapshot.

 

By noon on Saturday, when the second annual Upper Red Lake Crappie Contest commences, about 3,000 people are out on the ice. Tickets for the tournament cost 20 bucks, and there's more than $20,000 in prizes, including a much-coveted ATV that's to be raffled off at the end of the day. The sun is shining brightly, and the temperature is in the mid-20s. A Bemidji radio station has set up a booth and a public-address system to announce the giveaway door prizes.

At the gate I bump into Cheri and Joann. The Northern Beltrami Sportsmen's Club, which is sponsoring the tourney, has pre-drilled thousands of holes in the contest area. We find a few vacant ones and commence fishing. Almost immediately we see people around us catching fish. Because contest rules require that one's fish be alive to be eligible for prizes, contestants must run to register their catches before they freeze. Within 20 minutes 120 crappies have been logged at the tent. Unfortunately, our trio is catching nothing but perch. As the hours drag on, it begins to look hopeless.

Fishing beside us are a pipe fitter named Paul Besser and his grown son Paul Jr., who've come down from International Falls. They've got an average-size crappie in their bucket, and a couple of small perch. Senior says Junior had a whopper on--big as a dinner plate--but it wouldn't fit through the hole. The fishing is slow, but Besser doesn't mind. He has fished Red Lake his whole life. As a boy he came here with his father, chasing walleyes. After the walleye crash, he came for northerns. Maybe it was loyalty, maybe familiarity, but Besser kept returning to Waskish. By the late Nineties, the town had all but evaporated. "It was no different than what happens to a mining town," he says. "One year it was booming and hopping. People coming from all over to fish the walleyes. Then all of a sudden it was down to nothing. Like a ghost town."

Last year Besser got wind of the crappie bite. "Man, it was unreal," he recounts. "They wouldn't start biting until dark. First the perch would come through. Then they'd stop and the crappies would start hitting. As fast as you could put your line down. It wouldn't take half an hour to get your limit." Now he fishes the lake in the hopes of catching a four-pounder. "I'm after a wall mount," he says wistfully. "I want a nice, beautiful crappie on my wall."

By 4:00 p.m. our last hope for a four-pounder (or a two-pounder, or a one-pounder) has faded. Cheri, Joann, and I have been skunked, and I am reminded of the mantra I've heard Donnie Hudec repeat to disappointed anglers all week long: "It's called fishing. Not catching." The horn sounds to mark the end of the tournament. The winning fish, caught by a fellow from Bemidji, weighs a little over two pounds. It's a big crappie, but not an exceptional one.

Driving south on Highway 72 to Blackduck, I veer off on a scenic highway and head 30 miles or so into the Chippewa National Forest. The wind and sun have left me drained. But if I feel beaten, I also feel exhilarated. At its core, fishing is about curiosity and anticipation. The need to know what fish are swimming in a body of water, how they can be enticed to bite, how big they are, how many more there are down there. On ice or on water, those questions remain the same.

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