By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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.
The ice road is plowed 30 feet wide, smooth as fresh blacktop, and a hoot to drive on. Hudec is about four miles out on the ice, kicking up an enormous plume of snow with his truck. It hasn't snowed in a couple of days, he tells me, but keeping the road clear remains a constant battle. By Minnesota standards, Red Lake is an enormous body of water--some 289,000 acres in all. Upper Red, which is connected to Lower Red at its southern extreme, stretches 22 miles from east to the west, and across such an expanse that in summertime a moderate breeze can whip up three- or four-foot waves, earning the lake a reputation for hazardous conditions. In winter those same winds blow loose snow into the plowed road. Left untended, the accumulation will pack rock-hard in a matter of days. "It can drift over in a hurry," my host says with a shrug as we cruise, plow down,through the maze of roads he has made on the lake, plow down.
We drop off a 30-gallon tank of liquid propane at one of Hudec's unoccupied shacks. It's getting cold, and he wants to keep it above freezing so he won't have to redrill the 12 holes in the floor of the shack come morning. When the ice is four feet thick, as it is this time of year, drilling an eight-inch-diameter hole is a chore, even with a gas-powered auger.
A former two-way college football player, Hudec still walks with a bit of a jock's swagger at the age of 38. He's not heavy so much as thickly built. Dressed as usual in a lightweight jacket, wraparound sunglasses, and baseball cap, he seems entirely unaffected by the cold. Hudec grew up in Waskish, then left for college and the jobs that came after. He trained in aviation mechanics, was employed as a contractor and car salesman. In the end, though, he always knew he'd return to Waskish. His grandfather, Joseph Hudec, had come to the area around the turn of the century. Like many in the first wave of white settlers, the elder Hudec, a Bohemian immigrant by way of Illinois, figured he could make a living farming in the area and acquired a chunk of bog land north of Waskish. "In Europe peat land was often used for farming. Where he was from, it worked," Hudec explains. "But the problem was, it's so flat around here, nothing drains worth a shit." In 1938 the elder Hudec abandoned his agricultural ambitions and opened the fishing resort his grandson now operates.
Owing to its remoteness, Hudec's never attracted as many customers as the fishing meccas at Mille Lacs and Leech Lake. But the lake's reputation for producing hefty stringers of walleye attracted enough hardcore anglers to keep the concern afloat over the decades. Customers came from all over: the Twin Cities, Chicago, and the smaller towns and cities of northern Minnesota. But by the early Seventies, the catches on the lake had begun to decline, and along with them the resort businesses. Young Hudec--who spent his childhood summers cleaning fish for ten cents a fillet--watched as rival operations started to close shop.
But on this night about 300 fishermen are out on the ice. The crappie bite has been picking up, and word is spreading. Some of the fishermen, Hudec says, have been catching "slabbers"--slang for crappies weighing two pounds or more. Others have been coming in with their daily limit of 15 crappies. But the best is yet to come, Hudec imparts: "It should really start turning on in March. That's when the crappies start to form the really big schools."
Like most fishing shanties, mine (kindly supplied by Hudec) is a homemade job, cobbled together from plywood and two-by-fours. It's surprisingly comfortable, though, with gray wall-to-wall carpeting, faux-oak paneling, a pair of sliding-glass windows on opposite walls that afford views of sunrise and sunset, four fold-down bunks, a card table, six fishing holes, and, most important of all, a propane wall heater. The shack has been used regularly this winter, and a stink fills the air as it warms up. It is a peculiar smell, a mix of human hygienic failure and dead minnow. Within a few days I'll hardly notice it.
I haul in my stuff. A cook stove for coffee and soup. A sleeping bag. Two ice-fishing rods (identical to a standard outfit but only two feet long). A couple of scoops of fathead minnows, the locally favored crappie bait. A stack of magazines and a portable radio. The radio proves useless. In daylight hours I can pick up only the faintest of AM signals. FM provides a choice between contemporary country and a public-radio pledge drive. Thank God for the magazines.
I spend the morning and afternoon with my two lines in the water, experimenting with different hooks and jigs, tipped with minnows. Since childhood, I've liked to fish, but in the summertime. That's when you're supposed to fish. When you can float around in a boat, watch water lap up against shore, maybe reel in the occasional lunker. But as much as I've learned to adjust to the customs of my adopted state in the decade I've lived here, ice fishing has remained a conundrum to me. I've tried my hand at it a few times, generally with dismal results. It has always seemed to me that ice fishing is somehow the opposite of "regular" fishing: a harsh, static, uncomfortable experience bereft of the transcendent-communion-with-the-natural-world virtues of its unfrozen counterpart.
And hard-water fishing can be dangerous. Rare is the Minnesota winter that passes without a few ice-fishing-related fatalities. It is one of the perversities of ice fishing that fish generally bite best early and late in winter, when the ice is at its thinnest. But even in the dead of winter, when the ice is four feet thick and you can drive a cement mixer across it, ice fishermen succumb, typically to carbon-monoxide poisoning brought on by portable propane heaters in overinsulated shelters.
Beyond its hazards, ice fishing seemed to me the most uncouth form of fishing, occupying the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, fly fishing for trout on a Montana stream. The latter is the stuff of literature, the subject of masterful ruminations like Norman Maclean's elegiac A River Runs Through It, in which the narrator famously observes, "[I]n our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Ice fishing has no Norman Maclean to celebrate its virtues. Or, for that matter, no Hemingway or Thomas McGuane or any of the other first-rate writers who have celebrated fishing's sublime aspect.
Ice fishing does, however, have a lot of jokes. Most revolve around the stereotype of ice angler as imbiber and buffoon. After having a few too many drinks, one such joke goes, an ice fisherman sets out to drill a hole with his auger. As he commences cranking, he hears a booming voice: "There are no fish under the ice!" Looking around, the drunk sees no one and continues drilling. The disembodied voice repeats: "There are no fish under the ice!" Finally, the unnerved drunk asks, "Who are you? And why are you telling me there are no fish under the ice? Are you God?" The voice responds, "No, I'm the manager of this hockey rink."
Boozing is hardly the only decadence of which ice fishermen have been accused. Some stories are plucked straight from the headlines, such as the one about the three Wright County men who were arrested in 1999 after a conservation officer discovered they'd converted their fish house into a meth lab. Others are legends, the most pervasive of which has enterprising prostitutes making their way to one ice-fishing flat or another each winter to take up temporary residence and ply their trade. The tellers of this particular yarn never seem to have much specific information. But more than one person I've asked about it insists it's true, in a sort of Yes-Virginia-there-really-is-an-Ice-House-Hooker tone. "Wherever you got lonely men and booze," one salty character told me, "somebody's gonna be selling pussy." When I ask Hudec, he says the sex industry hasn't made its way to the crappie flats of Upper Red as far as he knows.
It's late afternoon by the time I get my first fish. It is a yellow perch, about four inches long. There is a peculiar pleasure in watching a fish emerge from a hole in the ice, even a pitiably tiny fish like my perch. It feels like pulling a rabbit from a hat. I mark the occasion by jotting down a note on my pad: "First fish. 4:45 p.m. Little perch."
Within a day I'll stop bothering to record perch. Red Lake is brimming with perch, almost all of them tiny. Some fishermen, irritated by the constant loss of minnows to the perch, throw the little pests on the ice to freeze to death. Under the state's "wanton waste" law, that method of disposal is illegal. (Minnesota Statute 97A, subsection 31: "Unless expressly allowed, a person may not wantonly waste or destroy a useable part of a protected animal.") But I'll soon discover that those perch aren't going entirely to waste. Each morning I see ravens flying low over the clusters of ice houses. When I note the phenomenon at Hudec's bar, one local tells me the ravens are not the only scavengers to make the rounds of the ice houses. Earlier this year a lone wolf had come scampering out on the lake, zigzagging between the ice houses, snagging discarded perch.
Just as it gets dark, my bobber sinks deep into the hole. I don't feel anything. With crappies, I'm about to learn, you often don't feel the bite. It is as if the fish is floating motionlessly and mouthing the minnow like a lollipop. But I yank up and there's a discernible weight on the line, and up the hole comes my first crappie. It is a handsome, well-proportioned fish, about ten inches long, a little under a pound, beautifully iridescent.
I'd planned to keep some fish to eat but decide to let this first one go as a sacramental gesture. Like baseball and bowling, fishing is an activity that lends itself to the construction of elaborate superstitions. As evening turns to night, I'm catching crappies at a modest clip, maybe one every 20 minutes. It's not spectacular--unless I compare it to my previous ice-fishing outings. Five fish feels impressive.
I peer out my windows and notice it's starting to snow. When I step outside, the wind is blowing and the temperature is dropping. A line of headlights is making its way toward shore. Maybe the bite is slowing. Maybe they've run out of beer. Or maybe they're worried about getting stuck. My automobile, a 1977 rear-wheel-drive Oldsmobile, is a prime candidate for getting bogged down if the snow piles up. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valor: I head in and spend the night in Hudec's motel. The next morning I emerge from my room to find that the snow has piled up four or five inches, with a fierce wind blasting from the northwest. Parked next to my car is the conveyance of a fellow fisherman, a pickup packed with ice-fishing paraphernalia. Sticking out from one of the five-gallon buckets is a copy of Playboy's Nude Celebrities.
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.
My car still functions, anyway. I pay a visit to the Take 5, Waskish's lone convenience store. The Take 5 used to be a bar called the Sunset Lodge, but like most of the businesses in the area, it went belly-up after the walleye crash. Now it's owned by the Red Lake Indian Nation, which, owing to a tribal policy that prohibits alcohol sales, has converted the building into a convenience store. I learn all this from the 18-year-old kid working the counter, a Waskish native named Matt Pula. When the walleyes disappeared, Pula was in school. The school bus to Kelliher used to pick up 30 kids in Waskish, he tells me; by the time he graduated, that number had dropped to fewer than a dozen.
Like everyone else in Waskish, Pula knows all about the crappies. He too has heard the story about the pilot's spotting. But while the fish have breathed new life into the local economy, Pula says he'd rather spear suckers or fish northern pike than mess around with pan fish. There may even be some sturgeon out there, too, he says: "I heard somebody found a sturgeon skull on the shore, and it weighed 35 pounds."
A little after 10:00 a.m. the next day, I'm bellied up to the bar at Hudec's listening to a fishing guide from Lake of the Woods tell a story about the most recent episode of ice-house debauchery there. Seems a local wild girl has been stripping for some of the fishermen in their shacks. When I press him for details, he cocks an eye at me. "You don't want to put that in the paper, do you?"
Thus rebuffed, I introduce myself to another patron, a stringy 49-year-old named Mark Vicha who's nursing a Miller and inveighing against clean living: "The doctor told me if I quit smoking and drinking, I'd live longer. I don't think so. I think it'll just seem longer." He flashes a gap-toothed smile. When I explain that I'm spending the rest of the week in a shack, he tells me he'll come by around dusk.
Vicha arrives in his blue Fifth Avenue just as the sun is setting, toting the classic old-school ice-fishing gear: a pair of wooden stick poles, each about two feet long. There are no reels on the poles; instead the line is wrapped on two pegs. If we were fishing in water 30 or 40 feet deep, this might be a hassle. But on a shallow lake like Upper Red, Vicha says, simple gear works just as well as the fancy stuff. Scooping the ice out of his holes with a plastic spoon, he tips his jig with a fathead and drops a few peanuts down the hole for good luck. "Chumming," he quips.
He then proceeds to catch one crappie after the next, hoisting the line hand-over-hand in a herky-jerky motion. The secret, he says, is to keep the jig about three feet off of the bottom.
That, and the peanuts.
Between fish, Vicha sketches out his story. A carpenter for most of his life, he grew up in Anoka. About 15 years ago he bought 160 acres and a log cabin not far from Red Lake. It's a simple place, heated with wood and without plumbing. But Vicha fell under the spell of the rural life. "First time most people come to my cabin, they'll be sitting on my back deck, and they'll say, 'What's that I hear?' And I say, 'It's nothing,'" he imparts. "You hear nothing. But when you're used to living in the city, you get so used to background noise that complete silence sounds strange."
For years Vicha went ice fishing once or twice a season. But this winter he quit his regular job, and though he still returns to Anoka to work on a freelance basis--"There just isn't enough to do up here"--he has spent the past month in his cabin. To make a few bucks, he has been building ice houses for Donnie Hudec and helping out with maintenance.
Vicha and I fish together the next couple of nights, with mixed results. When the crappie bite stops, usually around 11:00, he rolls back toward shore. I fold down my bunk and leave a minnow and jig in my hole. Each morning when I wake up, the jig is bare and I imagine that the four-pound crappie was the thief in the night.
On my second-to-last-day, two women pull into Hudec's lot in a pickup truck, and it occurs to me that I haven't seen more than a handful of women all week. The few I've seen are accompanied by men--husbands, boyfriends, or fathers.
Cheri is a cheerful sales rep for a Twin Cities company that manufactures underwater cameras. Joann is a city housing inspector, more reserved. They met a few years ago and discovered they shared an interest in fishing, though Joann hadn't fished much in recent years. "I got to take her out shopping for gear, and we spent $500 just like that," Cheri says. A devoted reader of outdoors publications, Cheri fished most of the winter on Mille Lacs, where she keeps an ice house. "I went out the last five weekends in a row. It's just a good mental break," she tells me. She has known about the crappie bite on Red Lake for a while, but this is her first trip up. She timed it so she could get in a couple of days of practice before the big Upper Red Lake Crappie Contest, which is scheduled for the weekend.
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.
When I get back to Minneapolis, I call Gary Bernard, the Department of Natural Resources' fisheries director in Bemidji. The crappie explosion on Red Lake, Bernard acknowledges, took the DNR by surprise. In hindsight, he says, it makes sense that the crappies would fill the niche left by the walleyes, though no one anticipated they'd appear in such numbers.
"It's the best crappie fishery I've ever seen," he says. When I ask him about the story I first heard from Charlie Norris, about the pilot who'd spotted the giant schools of crappie in the shallows, Bernard pauses, as if he isn't anxious to dash a myth. "I've heard it before, and I'm somewhat skeptical," he finally says. "But it's not impossible. Maybe someone did see something. Maybe there was a school swimming very close to the surface."