For me and my brother Leo, who lives in Grand Forks, N.D., and my brother-in-law Jeff Henn, who lives in Golden Valley, a holiday hunt for ruffed grouse has become somewhat of a tradition.
But this year the return of Old Man Winter from a three-year layoff led us to cancel the Christmas hunt in favor of a more comfortable afternoon in a rented fish house on sprawling Mille Lacs Lake.
On the day after Christmas the three of us were hunkered over holes in the ice, jig sticks in hand, staring optimistically down the columns of water. We hoped to catch a walleye or two and maybe some perch, which, according to a clerk at the bait shop, had been biting "pretty good."
A few days earlier I had called Twin Pines Resort on Mille Lacs to reserve a house for the afternoon of Dec. 26. When we arrived Linda Eno, who operates Twin Pines with her husband Bill, was busy sending other anglers to their respective houses. Some, like us, were there just for the afternoon. Another group with snowmobiles would rent a large house equipped with bunk beds for two days and nights.
Via two-way radio, Eno talked with an employee on the ice. "Is number 21 set?" Eno asked. "Okay, I'm sending a group out."
Eno pointed in the direction of fish house No. 21 and we drove to it on a road plowed by the resort. Inside the house a propane stove was lit and the holes were open. The 8 x 12-foot shack had twin bunks on each end that looked like they would be plenty comfortable had we opted to stay the night. There were several chairs and a table. Two propane lamps would provide light after sunset and a burner for cooking sat on a small shelf.
Since the resort doesn't supply ice fishing equipment we had stopped at a local bait shop on our way to the lake and purchased a small assortment of gear, including shiner and fathead minnows.
A few minutes after entering the shack we each had two lines down. I impaled a shiner minnow on a plain hook and suspended it a foot off the bottom below a rattle reel attached to the wall. If a fish took the bait the reel would rattle and alert me. On the other line I tied a jigging lure and attached a minnow head to the treble hook below its minnow-shaped body. This rig was attached to a small ice rod equipped with a tiny spinning reel. I worked it up and down, raising and lowering the lure a foot or two, and occasionally letting it sit motionless. Leo and Jeff fished with similar rigs.
Outside the winter sun shined bright and a slight breeze blew from the north. The temperature was a few degrees below zero. Inside the house we were comfortable. Occasionally the ice grumbled and groaned as we talked about this and that, and ate the leftovers from a Christmas potluck the day before.
After 30 minutes or so without a bite someone joked about the intentions of the bait shop clerk who had told us the fish were biting. "It's only 3:30," I said. "The walleye witching hour is yet to come. And with this cold front we can't expect much."
A few minutes later we heard a rattle reel and watched as a fish took about a foot of line and then stopped. I grabbed the line and yanked but nothing was there. The next bite came on my jigging rod, and I missed that fish, too. Leo also missed a couple of bites. Finally, I broke the ice and landed a keeper perch.
The setting sun illuminated the underside of wispy clouds that had gathered on the western horizon. I was admiring the view from the window when Jeff's rattle reel sounded. He wedged his jigging rod in his chair and jumped to the rattle reel line. But the fish had dropped the bait. Suddenly his jigging rod surged up and down. He grabbed it and set the hook with a sharp, upward motion.
"It's a nice fish," Jeff gasped as his tiny ice rod doubled over.
As the battle ensued Jeff and Leo stared down the hole for a glimpse of the fish. "It's a big walleye," Jeff said when he glimpsed the fish swimming past the hole. When he finally had the walleye up to the hole Jeff couldn't maneuver its head into the hole. Leo reached a long arm into the cold water and grabbed the fish just as Jeff's hook came loose.
As usual the walleye looked bigger in the hole than it really was, but the chunky fish measured 24 inches -- a very nice catch. The Mille Lacs slot limit allows anglers to keep walleyes between 14 and 18 inches and one fish over 28 inches, so Jeff had to release his catch after a few photos.
We fished until 6 p.m. but had no more bites. Though we caught only two fish over three hours it was a fun afternoon. The trip required virtually no cold weather equipment and a minimum amount of tackle, which makes it a great way to spend a day, or even a night, with friends and family regardless of the weather.
The recent warmer weather has triggered the bite on Mille Lacs. "I think I've already seen more fish caught this year than all of last year," Linda Eno said over the phone last Thursday. "It's been super. We've even had three 10-pound walleyes brought in."
Twin Pines Resort offers a variety of fish house rentals, as do other resorts around Mille Lacs. An 8 x 12-foot house with four to six holes that sleeps four costs $55 for 12 hours on weekdays. Prices are higher on weekends and holidays. Roads on the ice are maintained to all rental shacks. Reservations are recommended. Call Twin Pines Resort at 1-800-450-4682.
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