RED LAKE (AP) -- Les Morrison is a happy man.
"I'm living my dream," he said last week, counting 30 plump crappies he and his partner caught on sprawling Upper Red Lake in northern Minnesota.
Morrison, 49, formerly of St. Paul, has been living in a small, spartan ice-fishing house on the frozen lake since January. "I've been on the ice nonstop," he said. "I love it."
Morrison normally calls Lutsen home, but these days home is a frozen Red Lake. He is among thousands of anglers with crappie fever who have swarmed to the lake in recent years to catch buckets of huge crappies more than a foot long and weighing 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds.
Originally Morrison came strictly to fish. "I'm a crappie fisherman, and this is a crappie mecca," he said.
But it soon dawned on him that he also might be able to earn some money, while doing what he loved. He and his wife and a partner hauled four icehouses onto the lake and rent them to anglers eager to fish in a warm, lighted house with holes already drilled in the nearly 4-feet-thick ice. They are among a growing number of rental houses on the lake. And most usually are jammed with anglers.
So how does a lanky former city slicker who wears a cowboy hat and sports a bushy handlebar mustache and a genial smile end up living in a fish house on a remote northern Minnesota lake?
He and his wife, Sharen, 55, left St. Paul in 1999 and moved to Lutsen, looking for a simpler life, a place with less traffic and more wildlife.
"We got fed up," Les said. "We figured, 'Why not?' " said Sharen. "Let's do what we want to do. Sometimes you have to take a chance."
Les, a carpenter, and Sharen, a dental hygienist, started a business taking care of seasonal homes in the Lutsen area and doing some carpentry on the side.
But what Les really wanted to be was a hunting and fishing guide. He began guiding anglers in the Lutsen area. Darren Dosch, 25, a disillusioned professional chef who grew up in South Dakota hunting and fishing, joined the crew, and Caribou Trail Guide Service was born.
"This is what I always wanted to do," said Darren, who still does some cooking for customers.
The business has blossomed. Darren and Les guide anglers in the summer, then guide pheasant hunts at a lodge in South Dakota in the fall. They plan to guide snow goose hunts in South Dakota this spring and grouse and bear hunts in Minnesota in the fall and duck and quail hunts down South.
"It's kind of a gypsy caravan guide service," Sharen said. "We figured there's really no reason you have to do all of your guiding in one place."
So Red Lake was a natural, Les said.
Les and Darren handle the icehouse rental business while Sharen stays in Lutsen and runs the caretaker operation.
This winter, the crappie bite has been erratic. Hundreds and, on weekends, thousands of anglers flock to Red Lake, enticed by crappie "slabs."
"We had three nights where we couldn't keep them off the line," Les said. "It didn't matter what color jig you used."
His unofficial motto is "When you fish with Les, you get more." But he's the first to say that sometimes the bite is slow. "It's a crapshoot," he said.
"Last time I was up there, I was skunked for the first time," said Gary Barnard, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager in Bemidji. He said fishing was very slow last weekend.
Generally, the best fishing starts around 5:30 or 6 p.m., lasts a couple of hours, then shuts off.
That's exactly what happened when a friend and I fished in one of Morrison's houses last week. We caught one crappie around 3 p.m., but then nothing until around 6 p.m., when the action heated up. For two hours, helped by photographer Jerry Holt, we caught a dozen 12- to 13-inch glistening green and silver crappies. Then the bite shut off, and we didn't catch another until we quit around 10:30 p.m.
Next door in another fish house, Mike Shey, 61, Darrell Granger, 65, and Dick Puariea, 66, all of Hugo, and Jim Tollefsbol, 61, of Oakdale, were enjoying their second night of crappie fishing.
"We didn't catch many last night," Shey said.
But the action had improved this night.
They had nearly 50 fish when I left.
The crappies have been biting softly recently, Les said. He recommends using ultra-light gear, including tiny No. 8 or No. 10 sunfish jigs tipped with small crappie minnows, equally dainty bobbers and 2- or 4-pound line.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.