By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
WASKISH, Minn. — Finding Jonny Petrowske’s fishing spot on Upper Red Lake was as simple as finding the 2-inch cigar butt he’d poked into a chunk of ice somewhere along the north shore.
Perhaps that explains why we didn’t have another fish house within miles of us one Monday morning. Minnesota’s portion of Upper Red Lake covers 48,000 acres — the remaining 60,000 acres lies within the Red Lake Indian Reservation — and a glance across the big lake suggested at least 60,000 ice chunks covered the frozen horizon.
That’s a lot of ice to not find a cigar butt.
“It’s a lake where you have to be away from people” to do well fishing, Petrowske said. “We see it all the time.”
Petrowske, 36, of Waskish, operates Outdoors with Jonny P., an outfitting business that includes guided summer fishing, fall bear hunts and sleeper fish house rentals. Upper Red Lake has flowed through the family for more than a century, and Petrowske is the fourth generation to make a living on the big lake.
There’ve been a lot of changes here in the past 20 years: The collapse in walleye populations that in 1999 triggered a recovery program in state and tribal waters, the crappie boom that turned Upper Red into a mecca for slab panfish in the wake of the walleye collapse and, more recently, the walleye comeback that has returned the big lake to prominence as one of Minnesota’s top walleye fisheries.
Before the walleye population collapsed in the 1990s — the result of overfishing in state and tribal waters — fish larger than frying-pan size were rare, Petrowske said.
“These are bigger walleyes than we’ve ever caught,” he said. “We used to go to 6 feet of water, hook on a minnow and drop a jig and fill the bucket with small fish. You never caught a walleye over 16 inches. I remember my sister caught a 3-pound walleye, and it was big news.”
Ice fishing on Upper Red got off to a fast start as soon as anglers started venturing out in late November. The fishing last weekend slowed for many anglers — too many people and too much noise, according to Petrowske — but he was confident the spot he calls “Fail Safe” would produce a few fish.
The spot had all the ingredients for attracting walleyes, with a rock hump that topped out at 7 feet before dropping into 12 feet of water and a muck bottom.
Two days earlier, Petrowske had hosted a film crew, and three anglers iced 74 walleyes in a matter of hours.
The sun was shining that day, though, and the walleyes were on top of the hump and biting “as fast as you could catch them,” Petrowske said.
This day’s forecast called for sunny skies, as well, but someone forgot to tell the clouds. So Petrowske set his Otter portable fish house in deeper water.
The clouds, he figured, would drive the fish deeper.
“The best fishing has been from 10 to 2, but it changes every day,” he said. “It changes with the weather.”
Lines were in the water less than 15 minutes when Petrowske iced the first fish of the morning, a 17½-inch walleye too big to keep because it fell within Upper Red’s 17- to 26-inch protected slot limit.
He followed up with a 15-inch walleye a couple minutes later, but the fish flopped out of his hands and back down the hole before he could put it in the bucket.
“Oh, well. I wanted a 16-incher anyway,” he said.
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