ON UPPER RED LAKE — Wind from the east, fish bite least.
At least that’s what the old adage warns. And on a crisp, mid-June morning on this giant Minnesota lake it appeared to be painfully true.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
For the first couple of hours all we had to show for our minnow-dragging efforts were a small perch, a hammer-handle pike and a sheepshead, a rough fish that we all got a good laugh out of because I had declared it a keeper walleye when it hit. We did not keep any of them.
There were long stretches with no hits, no nibbles and not much chatter in the boat.
Everyone else on the lake, and there were lots of everyone elses out there, had clearly heard the same report we had: The walleyes were biting in seven feet of water. With no major islands or reefs to hang out near, the walleyes on this saucer-shaped lake use depth as their structure. And there were hundreds of boats strung out in a line, mirroring the shoreline about a quarter-mile out. They were trolling spinners or crankbaits, drifting jigs or watching slip bobbers — everyone at or near water that was seven feet deep.
Yet no one, it seemed, was having much success.
Patience, however, is a virtue among anglers, and Richard Anderson has plenty of patience. You get that way at 79, after decades of fishing. And he had a quiet, stoic confidence about him that gave me hope, too.
By noon, after nearly three hours of fishing, we finally had two 14-inch walleyes in the livewell. But Anderson, of Duluth, was thinking of a tip he received the night before. His buddy back at the Lake Winnibigoshish Dam Campground, Bubba, gave word of a hotspot on the north shore of Red Lake. So we motored over.
Turns out Bubba was right.
Anderson quickly landed a nice 15-incher, then his grandson, Hayden Norris, hit pay dirt with a 17-incher. Even the scribe got in on the action. Either we had found the right spot, or the fish finally turned on, or maybe both. But from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. the walleye action was downright steady.
Norris and Anderson took turns netting fish for each other.
“I got a fish going here,’’ Anderson said while feeding limp line to the walleye at the other end and then setting the hook. “There he is.”
“I’ve got another one,’’ said Norris, 25, who grew up in Duluth but now lives in Roseville, Minnesota.
Several smaller fish got tossed back. But the good eaters, those 14-to-18-inch walleyes that Minnesotans so cherish for fish dinners, went into the livewell.
For a moment, Anderson almost let that Scandinavian stoicism fall away. He smiled, heck he even laughed at the scribe’s verbal exuberance for missed fish.
“I like your enthusiasm,’’ said Anderson, a retired welder who also answers to Andy or Rich.
We had been trying to put this trip together for more than a year. We met at the Duluth Boat, Sports, Travel and RV show and Anderson invited me to visit him at his 27-foot fifth wheel camper that, come May and June, is usually parked on Leech or Winnie. From there Anderson picks his lakes to fish each day based on his own and other angler’s reports.
He usually goes home once a week to visit his wife, Judy, do laundry and go to church. But for most of the first few weeks of fishing season Anderson is firmly planted in the heart of Minnesota’s prime walleye country.
“I’ve been coming up here since my son was in high school, and he’s 52 now, so, what, 36 years?’’ Anderson said. “We’ve had a lot of fun on these lakes right around here.”
The day before we fished together, grandpa and grandson had hit Round Lake and Little Jesse, and they caught nice fish. But Anderson wanted to get back to Red Lake, where the action so far this season has been steady. So we made the drive an hour north from his camper.
“Hayden has never fished here before. It’s kind of like the ocean out there, isn’t it?” Anderson asked as we motored out of the narrow channel from the resort boat launch into the lake. Indeed looking west from the east shore one sees nothing but a vague horizon line where water meets sky.
These two used to fish together quite a bit. But college and now a career in the Twin Cities for Norris had kept them apart for too long.
“I haven’t fished in a long time,’’ Norris said while grabbing a shiner minnow out of the livewell. “It’s good to get out again.”
Especially when grandpa puts you on fish.
This is a massive body of water. Together, Upper and Lower Red Lake, joined in the middle, are the largest lake entirely within Minnesota at nearly 288,000 acres, or 450 square miles. But only a portion of the upper lake is open to the public. Most of the water here is reserved for the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.
No worries, though. The open portion is plenty big enough to hold plenty of fish.
“Here’s another one, Hayden,’’ Anderson said, queuing grandson to get the net. Grandpa’s jig and minnow combo was by far the hottest in the boat.Anderson grew up on a farm near Alexandria, Minnesota. and cherished the few times a summer when his father would excuse the kids from chores and take them fishing for sunnies or bullheads. Anderson later built a career as a welder in the Twin Cities. But he liked heading up north to fish so much that, in 1990, he moved his family to Proctor.
“When we used to come up on weekends we never wanted to go home… I figured I was always going north, so why not live up there?’’ he said.
He retired in December 2002, and he’s been fishing even more ever since.
There was one glitch along the way. In December 2005, doctors discovered he had some major heart issues that needed immediate attention. When he woke up in the hospital, surgeons had performed six bypasses. Since then he’s had a heart attack, eight stents and a pacemaker installed. And several of the stents have had to be re-opened. He’s on a first-name basis with the cardiology staff at Essentia.
Since then he treats every day like a bonus. And he’s always a little cautions about how he phrases his long-term plans.
“If I can make it back next year I might try to put the camper on Red Lake,’’ he said.
If indeed. My guess is he’ll make it back.
Anderson landed another nice fish and soon the conversation moved from catching fish to double-checking what we had in the livewell to make sure we were within the legal limit.
It was just past 3 p.m. when I landed a plump 18-incher that Anderson wanted to keep. That made an even dozen walleyes in the livewell, four fish each, with three of them between 17 and 18 inches. It was the perfect Red Lake limit on what was a perfect day: Light east winds, a few puffy white clouds in an otherwise blue sky and temperatures on the water around 60 degrees.
Not too hot, not too cold, no bugs. And a Red Lake limit of walleyes.
“The party is over for today,’’ Anderson exclaimed, declaring the official end of fishing as he put his Honda outboard in gear and aimed the Alumacraft back toward the boat landing. “That was a fun day, wasn’t it?”