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Commentary: Fishing isn't always catching

Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—It doesn't happen very often—fortunately—but there are times when an outdoor excursion requires digging deep into the creative well to pull out a story.

Sometimes, the fish don't bite, the hunting is poor or the weather is bad. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Such was the case last Sunday, when two friends and I hit Lake Winnipeg for what easily was the shortest fishing excursion we've ever had on the big lake. We know futility when we see it.

The abbreviated version of the story would be something like this:

It was windy.

It was cold.

Fishing was poor.

We went home early.

The end.

Lest this sound too much like a tale of woe, we hadn't made the trip north for the sole reason of fishing Lake Winnipeg. Instead, two of us from Grand Forks were visiting friends who live near Lockport, Manitoba, as we've done during New Year's on several occasions in recent years.

On that count, the weekend was a big success.

If time, weather and circumstances had been different, we would have ventured onto the big lake with snowmobiles and portables and fished an area that produced several nice greenback walleyes for our host only a few days earlier.

But with only one snowmobile in running order, that wasn't a feasible option, nor was it particularly appealing in -30 degree weather, so I made arrangements to spend a few hours fishing with Curtis Beyak, a Winnipeg police officer who runs Lake Winnipeg Ice Fishing Shack Rentals on the east side of the big lake.

Fishing reports were hard to come by in the days before our planned excursion, but Beyak's assessment in a message Dec. 30 left little cause for optimism:

"As you see, we have a deep freeze and fishing slowed down big time since five days ago," he wrote. "Just letting you know."

Still, we were there, and the truck was packed, and so we decided to make the 45-minute trip from our friends' place to the lake anyway.

We had to find out for ourselves.

Beyak and his girlfriend, Tracy, were set up in his personal 8-by-12 fish house tending the anglers who had reserved his five rentals nearby, and the wood stove was kicking out plenty of BTUs as we chatted and listened to the wind howl outside.

The blessing and curse of permanent fish houses is that while they're comfortable, they're only as good as the areas on which they're situated.

Beyak said he was hoping to move the houses to more productive water once the holiday rental rush subsided and weather conditions improved. But for the meantime, his assessment of the slow fishing was spot-on.

Even with several hundred dollars worth of electronics in our fishing arsenal, we struggled to mark a fish.

You can't catch what's not there, and on this day, the fish were elsewhere. Given the wind raging outside, we weren't particularly inclined to do anything about it, even though we'd packed a couple of portable houses just in case.

Getting around on the ice with a pickup further dampened our enthusiasm. Unlike Lake of the Woods or Upper Red Lake, both of which have well-established networks of marked and plowed ice roads, Lake Winnipeg is more like the Wild West.

It's a fantastic walleye fishery when you're set up in the right location, but when it comes to getting around, you travel at your own risk.

And so, heading back to the comfort of our friends' house in the woods for an afternoon of football, food and conversation washed down with a beverage or two won out over slow fishing.

We'd started 2017 on Lake Winnipeg with a bang on New Year's Day but ended the year with fishing that only could be described as a whimper on New Year's Eve.

It goes that way sometimes.

On the upside, it can only get better.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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