NINETTE, Manitoba -- Ice fishermen who park in one place usually catch fewer fish than mobile fishermen. Thus fishing writers and tackle manufacturers preach the gospel, "stay mobile."
"Stay mobile" is a relative term, however. Today it could mean moving 20 feet, tomorrow to the other side of the lake and next week to a lake 400 miles away.
The quest to stay mobile can lead devoted ice fishermen to lakes unknown, where the bite is said to be hot. If you travel 400 miles you hope the information isn't based on thin ice. Fishing is always hit or miss, but slow ice fishing is harder to take than slow summer fishing. "At least the weather is nice" rings hollow when you're standing in pac boots on a frozen lake as a harsh northwest wind bites your neck.
Pelican Lake, Manitoba, is about as close to a guaranteed bite as you'll find in the winter of '01. Only a few years ago Americans seldom ventured to this 17-mile-long impoundment in southern Manitoba. But word of good fishing travels fast and today a typical Saturday might find 500 fishermen, many from North Dakota, scattered across the lake in search of jumbo perch.
Jim Kalkofen of In-Fisherman magazine enjoys catching fish of all species, even suckers. The four he pulled from Pelican Lake in Manitoba proved to be worthy fighters. (Dispatch Photo by Vince Meyer)
Yet on a recent Monday morning the turnout could hardly be called a crowd. When the sun cleared the hills surrounding Pelican Lake it illuminated fishermen who already had lines in the water, others who were drilling holes and others, like us, who were wondering where to go.
At the wheel of the truck in which I sat was Jim Kalkofen of In-Fisherman magazine. In another truck were Randy Myers, a gunsmith from Devils Lake, N.D., and his friend, Clint DeVier, owner of Ed's Bait Shop in Devils Lake. We had left Devils Lake at 6 a.m. and now, three hours and 130 miles later, had reached a juncture of a slightly more critical nature than what had faced us an hour ago.
We had tried to buy licenses at three gas stations in Killarney, Manitoba, and at each stop the clerk said he was sold out. "Had 250 of 'em a week ago," one clerk said.
We drove to the local office of Manitoba Conservation and found it locked. Next door at the Department of Rural Development the woman at the front desk said the Conservation folks would probably be out all day.
How easy is it to catch perch on Pelican Lake in Manitoba? Our party stopped in the middle of the lake, drilled some holes and caught fish like this one all day. (Photo by Jim Kalkofen)
Our last hope was Ninette, a town of about 300 "when all the cats and dogs are home," according to Bill Cole, a member of the local economic development group. At the Tempo station the clerk answered our inquiry for licenses with, "I thought everybody in North Dakota already had a license." We said we didn't, he said he did, and 10 minutes later we were back on the road with the necessary paperwork.
"It isn't unusual," Kalkofen said, "to find the local merchants unprepared the first year or so after a lake gets hot."
Neither Kalkofen, Myers nor DeVier had been to Pelican Lake, and the only Pelican Lake on my resume was the one 15 miles north of Brainerd. We were on unchartered waters without so much as a contour map to guide the way.
It was decided Myers and DeVier would lead, for no better reason than they already were in front when the decision was made. The road on the lake was hardly more than a pair of ruts cutting through two feet of snow. It was a job for a full-size, four-wheel drive truck. A Ranger or S-10 might have made it, but a van or sedan would have been buried before you could ask, "Anyone bring a shovel?"
Myers drove about a mile onto the lake, stopped and gave us the "Which way now?" look. When only a few vague suggestions were offered DeVier got out, hoisted his auger from the truck bed and started drilling holes. "May as well start here," he reasoned. "We can always move."
Nobody argued, marking one of those rare occasions when four guys agree on where to start fishing without a dissenting vote.
Had DeVier claimed he had spent his whole life on Pelican Lake we wouldn't have doubted him, for within minutes after dropping a jig and minnow down a hole I had a plump 10-inch yellow perch on the line. It was the first of 19 perch and two northern pike, called "jackfish" in Manitoba, that I landed. All came from five different holes within a 40-foot radius. The depth was 10 to 12 feet in all holes. Salted minnows -- live bait cannot be carried over the border -- was all the bait I needed.
My partners had even better luck. Kalkofen caught 21 perch, a half dozen pike and four suckers from just two holes. Myers and DeVier combined to reel in about 60 perch and several nice pike, also from just a few different holes.
It was remarkable how we blindly drilled some holes in the middle of the lake and caught fish all day. But we really were amazed when a friend of Myers' from Rolla, N.D., stopped by on his way off the lake and said fishing that day was the slowest he had seen all winter.
"I usually take home three or four pails," he said.
By dusk our party was content to fill two 6-gallon pails with perch, the biggest weighing about 1.5 pounds. Several others weighed from three-quarter to one pound. We didn't worry about exceeding our perch limit for there isn't one in Manitoba. We also kept nine pike, which, unknown to me at the time, I would end up cleaning.
Manitoba offers a conservation license to non-resident anglers for about $16 in U.S. currency ($22 Canadian). The license is good from April 1 to March 31. Only barbless hooks are allowed.
For more information on Pelican and other lakes in the area call the Brandon office of Manitoba Conservation at (204) 726-6449. Or call Bill Cole at (204) 528-3226.
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