We muster at Hunter's Point, 7 a.m.. I board a troop transport driven by Tony Roach — a flatbed trailer pulled by a four wheeler. We pull out in the dark, heading for mid lake.
Roach has chains on the tires, which ping the occasional chunk off the hood of my Ice Armor. Ice dust numbs my left eye. Leaning on a Frabill shelter, rattling over massive cracks in the ice sheets of Mille Lacs which, until a few days ago, had a tendency to pull away from each other, keeping Roach (and everybody else) off the mid-lake quadrants. Walleyes held sway for months with no resistance. Now it was our turn.
The diffuse light of a cloudy dawn revealed a barren icescape. We were seven miles out. Desert sprawled in all directions. The wind was up, creating a pastiche of patchy snow and bare ice alternating with drifts that slowed the transport, driving the edge of the shelter into my shoulder blades. We rattled on.
Normally, trucks are deployed. It's January. It's Minnesota. (What the...?) Trucks have certain luxuries. Like heat. Snow dust, a kind of frozen silica, coated my bibs, my coat, my gloves, and my left eye. I felt an odd connection to the Teutonic knights charging across frozen Lake Peipus in 1242. I wondered if anybody's tongue got stuck to their armor that day. (How do you say "Waib a mimut!" in German?)
The four wheeler was slowing down. We deployed a squad of Tony's guests on one side of a piece of structure and set out for the other side of it. Tony drilled about 40 holes while I shuffled along with old reliable (my Vexilar F-18), and my Thorne Brothers Walleye Sweetheart. The reel, a little Pflueger, was spooled with yellow 6-pound Berkley FireLine backing tied to about 35 feet of 6-pound Toray Super Hard fluorocarbon. (I like to tailor the amount of fluorocarbon to the depths I'm fishing so I don't have to put the FireLine in the water much. Most of the walleyes were biting in depths of about 32 feet.) I had a bucket to sit on, a backup rod slung over my shoulder, and a Northland Macho Minnow tied to the end of my line.
Actually, I had five other jigs and spoons tied to my line before that. Tony said the Macho Minnow was working, so I had to try something else. But walleyes were not in the best of moods. Despite having seen little pressure out there, they weren't exactly being suicidal. Probably the wind — which started out strong and picked up all day. Why does wind have a negative effect on walleyes, pike, and other species under the ice? No, really. If you figure it out, call me.
But we caught a few.
The Macho Minnow, tipped with the head of a minnow, had to be worked aggressively early, then held still as they approached.
Some spots had a biter every 100 yards or so. Those were the good spots. Otherwise, Tony and I would quickly work through 10 to 50 holes along the side of a rise out in the basin and move to a mud flat, a point, or another rise. It was a long, hard day of run and gun, mostly because of the wind. But those are sweet days when you find a few fish like these (which were released) plus a couple slot fish (anything under 18 inches) for the table.
But it was very mild. That's what I mean by paradise. Minnesota, this winter, is a comparative paradise — compared to some years, when I spend more time shoveling snow than fishing. This year, I've got the fish right where I want them.
We worked hard, but that's Tony. He's the hardest working guide around because he loves it out there. Everything about it. That bleak, desolate ice scape is home. It's his element and the fish can't move without him figuring out where and, eventually, why.
He even let me ride back in the Snobear. Well, most of the way back. We rattled back to Hunter's Point in the dark. I sat next to Billy Lindner, who was out there taking underwater shots. We compared notes on gathering mushrooms and wild berries. I was just about to get some pesto out of the deal and had to transfer to another troop transport.
Just another day on walleye patrol.