Red Lake opens four trout lakes to nontribal ice fishing
Red Lake Indian Reservation, Minn. -- A glance at our surroundings might have suggested we were fishing somewhere in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northeast Minnesota.
The chunky rainbow trout peeling line from the reels on this perfect late-December day would have done nothing to dispel that notion. Except Minnesota's stream trout season on inland waters wouldn't open for another two weeks, and the wilderness splendor that surrounded us was only a two-hour drive from Grand Forks.
Even better, there wasn't another person in sight; just four of us in pursuit of rainbow trout and brook trout on a lake surrounded by snow-laden trees.
Welcome to winter fishing on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
This winter, for the first time, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa has opened four of the reservation's trout lakes to nontribal members who fish with a tribal guide. More than 20 of the reservation's small lakes that are managed for species such as walleyes, northern pike, largemouth bass and panfish are open to nontribal anglers from mid-May through October, but the four small lakes stocked with rainbow trout and brook trout now offer ice fishing opportunities not readily available in northwest Minnesota or northeast North Dakota.
"This is the first season ever for year-round trout fishing," said Darwin Sumner of Red Lake, Minn., a longtime fishing guide who oversees the guiding program for Seven Clans Casino and host on our recent trout excursion. "Normally, we offer the open-water trips, but this year the band has allowed us to do trout fishing all year round, so a lot of people have been coming to do the trout fishing through the ice.
"And the trout are biting like crazy."
According to Pat Brown, fisheries biologist for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, the four small lakes open to winter fishing range from about 30 acres to 100 acres with a maximum depth of about 40 feet. The band stocks the lakes with rainbow trout and brook trout every spring, using fish from the Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin.
The trout average 8 inches to 12 inches when stocked, Brown said, and the 17- to 20-inch rainbow trout we catch are 3 to 4 years old.
"They're put-and-take fisheries," Brown said of the lakes stocked with trout. "They grow quick, and they're fun to catch."
Traditionally, Brown said, the fishing season for nontribal anglers closed at the end of October. But as the popularity of guided summer packages on the reservation has increased, the Red Lake Tribal Council decided to give winter fishing a try on the trout lakes, he said.
"I talked to some council members who said, 'People go up to the Boundary Waters to catch trout; why don't we try to do something like that here on the reservation?'" Brown said. "This is our flagship year, and we'll see how it goes. You're going to have to go up toward the Boundary Waters area (for trout fishing like this), but we have it right here in our backyard."
Brown said he stocks the trout lakes fairly heavily, and the fish thrive on a diet of aquatic insects and freshwater shrimp. The lakes have very few minnows that would compete with the trout for food, and using minnows for bait is prohibited.
Historically, he said, the lakes have been stocked with brook trout and rainbow trout since the 1970s, and with minimal fishing pressure, the fish can live eight to 10 years. Brown said he knows of band members who have caught brook trout longer than 20 inches and rainbows in excess of 26 inches -- trophies by any standard.
Another reservation lake, Green Lake, is stocked with lake trout but is closed to ice fishing because the fish are especially vulnerable to harvest in winter. Brown said the tribal Department of Natural Resources will be working closely with the guides to monitor fishing pressure and harvest on the trout lakes open this winter.
"In the past, I don't think we've taken enough" trout, Brown said of the harvest. "Tribal members really don't fish these lakes that much."
The excursion Sumner hosted on this late-December day was a follow-up, of sorts, to a fishing trip we took last June through the casino. The plan that day was to fish walleyes and pike in the morning on Sandy Lake and then shift gears and try for trout on nearby Kinney Lake in the afternoon.
But after hitting a pocket of fish that saw us release four walleyes ranging from 25 inches up to 28½ inches -- among others -- in a magical stretch of 45 minutes, we put the trout plans on ice.
So to speak.
There was plenty of reason for optimism, Sumner said last Friday morning upon meeting us at Seven Clans Casino south of Red Lake. A few days earlier, he'd hosted a crew from the "In-Fisherman" television show for a segment on trout fishing. The trout cooperated, Sumner said, but getting the fish through the ice proved to be a challenge for some of the crew who had trouble setting the hook.
A certain Grand Forks Herald reporter who shall remain nameless had the same problem and was forced to endure near-merciless ribbing from Sumner -- not only on Kinney Lake where we started the day, but on the second lake, Squaw-Smith Lake, which has fewer trout but larger fish.
"I'm going to have to call the In-Fisherman guys and tell them I found a fisherman who's even worse than they are," Sumner joked.
Tips and gear
Landing trout through the ice can be a challenge because of the way they twist and turn and squirm at the bottom of the hole, but the technique for fishing them is relatively simple. Drop a jig or jigging spoon tipped with a piece of nightcrawler or artificial bait to the bottom of the lake in 35 to 40 feet of water and gradually work it to the surface.
Typically, Sumner said, the trout cruise through about 10 feet off the bottom but occasionally will chase a lure right to the surface in the clear water. He favors 8-pound test Sufix-brand ice line because it's clear and less apt to spook the fish.
The hot lure during our recent excursion was a chartreuse-colored Jigging Rapala tipped with a small piece of nightcrawler. Sumner at one point landed eight rainbows in a row from the same hole on Kinney Lake on the lure before a big trout snapped his line later that afternoon on Squawsmith Lake.