Let’s get one thing straight here right off the bat about this early January fishing excursion:
We’d picked the coldest day of a mostly wimpy winter to try our luck for rainbow trout and brook trout on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The temperature last Saturday morning flirted with 15 below zero, and the brisk northwest wind made it feel even colder.
No matter, that. We’d be fishing in the heated comfort of portable shelters, and the trout in these small reservation lakes have a habit of biting regardless of the conditions.
You play the cards you’re dealt when it comes to winter fishing, and it was going to take more than subzero cold to keep us off the ice.
The trip, which we’d booked through Seven Clans Casino along state Highway 89 at the southern boundary of the Red Lake Indian Reservation, was a rendezvous, of sorts, for a trio of fishermen from the Red River Valley and a trio from Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Players in this rainbow trout reunion—about a 2½ -hour drive for both groups—were Greg Clusiau and Blake Liend of Keewatin, Minn.; Justin Bailey of Bovey, Minn.; and Brad Durick, Kevin Grinde and myself from the valley. Durick and I live in Grand Forks, while Grinde resides in East Grand Forks.
Our hosts on this day were Daris Rosebear, 25, and his brother Davis, 26, of Red Lake, Minn. Daris oversees fishing operations for the casino, and Davis helps out with larger groups.
Word’s been getting out about the ice fishing on the reservation since the winter of 2012-13, when the Red Lake Tribal Council opened four small trout lakes—which range from about 30 acres to 100 acres—in reservation boundaries to year-round fishing for nontribal anglers who hire a tribal guide and buy a $10 daily permit.
More than 25 lakes in the reservation are open to nontribal anglers for open water fishing, but the walleye, bass and panfish lakes close at the end of October, as does a lake managed for lake trout.
The winter rainbow and brook trout fishing has been a popular option since 2012—and for good reason, as we were reminded last weekend.
Daris said this winter’s late freeze-up has been good for business, as anglers who couldn’t find safe ice anywhere else turned to the reservation to try their luck on trout.
Business has been brisk since Christmas, he said.
“There wasn’t ice near the Twin Cities, so they came here,” Daris said, adding he’d gone through two 50-permit books of nontribal licenses in the past few weeks and was well into a third.
If the weather had been more favorable, we’d have tried two lakes—Island Lake and Kinney Lake—Daris said, but with subzero temperatures, we’d focus on Kinney.
“Island Lake has been producing some high numbers,” he said. “The average rainbow is between 12 and 16 inches, and brooks are 8 to 14 inches. Kinney has been a little slow, but they’re bigger.”
Three days earlier, a group of eight anglers had caught six 20-inch rainbows and iced limits of five trout each in about eight hours on Kinney, Daris said; traditionally, he says, action is best in the morning.
“Trout kind of slow down around noon, but we’ll still catch them,” he said.
On the ice
Within minutes of our arrival at Kinney Lake, the Rosebear brothers were drilling holes and setting up a six-person Clam thermal shelter atop 10 inches of ice above 45 feet of water. Despite the depth, the house wasn’t more than about 100 yards from shore on the small lake.
Following the brothers’ lead, Durick set up a smaller Frabill pop-up shelter near a beaver house where the depth dropped from 10 feet of water to 20 feet in a matter of steps. Brook trout favor shallower water, Daris said, while rainbow trout tend to dominate the deeper water, where they often suspend several feet off the bottom.
Liend found that out minutes into the morning when a chunky rainbow smacked his jigging spoon just a few feet under the ice outside the deeper house. That pattern would persist throughout the day in deeper water, while the trout near the beaver house generally cruised closer to the bottom in 16 feet of water.
Despite the cold snap, jigging spoons or small tungsten jigs were effective at putting trout on the ice, and the action was about the same both in shallower and deeper water. The trout were finicky, at times, and the electronics we used often showed the fish rising up to the bait only to turn up their noses at the last minute.
Clusiau, a veteran angler and fishing guide, said that didn’t surprise him.
“I figured the cold snap had them biting not as well as good weather would have,” he said. “Normally, the larger fish are less active.”
By the numbers
Those who wanted to keep trout had no trouble catching their five-fish limits, and between all of us, we caught probably 50 rainbow trout and two bonus brookies in about five hours of fishing. The rainbows ranged from about 14 inches to nearly 20 inches, while the brook trout—which resemble swimming jewels with their striking orange fins and pink, orange and yellow spots—measured about 10 inches.
Pieces of nightcrawler or waxworms were the preferred baits, although Davis Rosebear caught several rainbows on a cigarette butt.
There’ll be no judgments about the health dangers of smoking, but you know fishing’s good when the fish will hit cigarette butts.
“I’d rate it right up there as far as being able to catch a bunch of trout in a short amount of time,” Clusiau said. “(There’s) no better place to take someone that wants to catch fish. I plan on heading back with my grandkids when spring rolls around. I can’t imagine how they will react to fish after fish.”
Bailey, a fishing guide and military veteran who also helps other veterans enjoy the outdoors through the Fishing with Vets organization, said his first fishing excursion to the Red Lake Indian Reservation definitely won’t be his last.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and the whole experience was amazing,” he said, adding the Rosebear brothers were fun hosts and kept the crew laughing all day. “Plus, the fishing was (great). I will be making a lot more trips.”
IF YOU GO
• Because the Red Lake Indian Reservation is a sovereign nation, a Minnesota fishing license is not required to fish the small tribal lakes; nor is a state trout stamp, which is required on Minnesota trout waters. A daily nonresident tribal license costs $10. Licenses are available from Seven Clans Casino for nonresidents who book one of the casino’s fishing packages. Nonresidents can’t fish Lower Red Lake or the tribal portion of Upper Red Lake.
• A tribal guide is required.
• Trout season on the reservation is open year-round.
• For more information on fishing the Red Lake Indian Reservation and the casino’s fishing packages, go to redlakeoutdoors.net or contact Daris Rosebear at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• For more information on small lakes in the Red Lake Indian Reservation, go to www.redlakednr.org/Small%20Lakes.htm or contact Pat Brown, tribal fisheries biologist, at (218) 679-3959.