Closing out 2012 on the ice

I closed out 2012 on a fine note, fishing three out of the last four days of the year.

Friday, a friend and I joined Darwin Sumner and Daris Rosebear of Seven Clans Casino in Red Lake, Minn., for a day of trout fishing on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. This winter, for the first time, the band is allowing nontribal members to fish four small lakes on the reservation stocked with rainbow trout and brook trout.

To fish the lakes, nontribal members must be accompanied by a reservation guide, and Seven Clans Casino is offering fully outfitted trout-fishing trips throughout the winter months. In other words, just show up and they’ll provide the gear and heated portable fish houses. A one-day license costs $10, and longer-length licenses also are available. Because the Red Lake Indian Reservation is a sovereign nation, regulations differ from state-managed waters in Minnesota, and a trout stamp isn’t required.

An average-size rainbow trout from a small lake in the Red Lake Indian Reservation. (Brad Dokken photo)

The lakes might be small, but the trout are dandies. One of us who shall remain nameless had trouble putting fish on the ice, but the trout mostly cooperated, and “we” landed several rainbows ranging from 16 inches to 22 inches. No brook trout were landed, but my fishing partner lost one at the hole.

We fished two small lakes and didn’t see another person the entire day. The scenery and the quality of fishing rivals the kind of experience you might expect venturing into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in winter — within a 2½-hour drive of Grand Forks.

I’ll have a story about the reservation’s trout fishing opportunities in Sunday’s Northland Outdoors Section. For more information on the reservation’s winter trout excursions, click here:

Saturday, I ventured north to join longtime friend and fishing partner Jim Stinson of Lockport, Man., to try our luck on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River.

Hmmm … where do I go now? Trying to navigate a large expanse of rough ice Sunday on Lake Winnipeg proved to be a challenge even by snowmobile (Brad Dokken photo)

Late Sunday morning, as we drove snowmobiles onto the massive expanse of Lake Winnipeg, we were greeted by several miles of some of the roughest ice I’ve ever seen. Jagged shards of ice, some more than 3 feet tall, covered one area of the lake for what seemed to be several miles in every direction, preventing us from reaching one of our time-proven fishing spots.

The rough ice forced us to backtrack and search for a smoother place to set up the portable, but we finally had our lines in the water about 12:30 p.m. Considering we basically picked a spot at random, fishing wasn’t bad at all, and we landed 10 walleyes

Few places can rival Lake Winnipeg, where walleyes generally seem to be 20 inches or longer. Brad Dokken landed this 25-incher early Sunday afternoon.

ranging from 20 inches to 27 inches in length by the time we packed up and headed for shore four hours later. In my experience, there’s nowhere within easy driving distance that rivals Lake Winnipeg for quality-size walleyes. There’s not much infrastructure such as the rental houses and plowed access roads, but for anglers with the means and desire to explore, the walleyes are well worth the effort.

Monday, we shifted gears and fished the Red River not far from Selkirk. We accessed the river by snowmobile, but lots of anglers were getting around in full-size pickups on ice that was about 14 inches thick.

Winter fishing on the Manitoba side of the Red River generally is better early in the morning in my experience, and while we didn’t start fishing until after 11 a.m., the two of us managed to scratch out an eight-fish limit — five walleyes and three saugers — before heading home about 4 p.m.

Jim also had a fish snap his line that left us wondering what might have been.

Nothing came easy those two days, but there are worse ways to wrap up a year than catching fish on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River.

Good ice fishing reports are still the norm across the region

Despite the unseasonably warm weather we’re having, it continues to be a great winter for ice fishing across the region.

I got my first report from Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg yesterday, and it was a good one. Three anglers reported limiting out on “greenback” walleyes and threw back several fish, as well. “None over 27½ inches but they were fat,” was the report I got from my source. The best fishing definitely was in the early morning hours, he said.

Meanwhile, fishing on Lake of the Woods continues to be off the charts, as well. A friend who fished the big lake this past weekend ranked the trip among the top five he’s ever taken to the lake. That’s saying something, because he’s logged a lot of hours on Lake of the Woods over the years. Saugers dominated the catch, but they also caught their share of walleyes, including several 20- to 23-inch fish and a 27½-incher that took bragging rights for the weekend.

Good reports also are coming in from Devils Lake, but I haven’t heard any personal accounts from people fishing over there. One thing’s for sure — the lack of snow means getting around is a lot easier than it’s been the past couple of years. Be careful, though, especially near current areas. A friend who has a cabin near the lake said there was open water for about 200 yards on either side of the Six-Mile Bay bridge when he crossed it Sunday.

Enough already! I want snow

Is it just me, or is the lack of snow on the landscape unsettling?

I just returned from a trip to the Twin Cities for Christmas, and everywhere I looked, brown dominated the horizon. In my half-century on this planet, I can’t remember a completely brown Christmas.

Or, perhaps, I’ve blocked it out of my mind.

Much as I hate driving in snow or on icy roads, I’m a snow guy. My two snowmobiles continue to collect dust on the trailer, where they’ve patiently rested since I parked them for the season last March.

Another sign of what a weird winter this has been so far surfaced Tuesday, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a news release warning people to be careful when burning because the fire danger is so high. There’s even a requirement that anyone planning to burn vegetation or other debris first obtain a burning permit.

If we had some snow, that wouldn’t be an issue.

Ice conditions also are dicey, at best, and authorities continue to warn people to stay off the west side of Lake of the Woods, where a large crack that extends from Springsteel to Swift Ditch, Rocky Point and Long Point will remain dangerous until we get enough cold weather to freeze the open water.

Also Tuesday, a video surfaced on YouTube showing the danger on Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg, where a vehicle went through the ice near the access at Balsam Harbor on the east side of the lake. You can watch for yourself here: