By Brad Dokken
Grand Forks Herald 

Red Lake Indian Reservation lakes live up to reputation for topnotch fishing


RED LAKE INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn. — It was the kind of day best spent in a boat, sunny with a light breeze and a temperature in the mid-70s.

The thunderstorms that had rumbled through the area the previous evening, lighting up the sky like Fourth of July fireworks seemed like a distant memory.

As he almost always does, Darwin Sumner of Red Lake, Minn., had the water to himself on this perfect Friday morning. Outfitter manager for Seven Clans Casino, Sumner was fishing largemouth bass on a couple of small lakes within the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

While Lower Red Lake and the tribal portion of Upper Red Lake are open only to members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, several of the smaller lakes within the reservation are accessible to nonresidents who purchase a special license and hire a tribal guide.

The lakes, which range from 20 to 200 acres, offer fishing for a variety of species, including walleyes, rainbow trout, brook trout, panfish and northern pike, but it’s the largemouth bass that get Sumner most excited.

It’s here, Sumner says, that he developed his passion for bass fishing. Little wonder; Sumner’s biggest largemouth from the reservation lakes weighed 8 pounds — just ounces shy of the Minnesota state record of 8 pounds, 15 ounces that came from Auburn Lake in Carver County in 2005.

While not confirmed, Sumner says he’s heard stories of bass in excess of 10 pounds.

Considering how little fishing pressure these lakes receive, such claims could be more than fish tales.

“There’s definitely state record bass in these lakes,” said Sumner, 55, who oversees Red Lake Outdoors, the casino’s guiding service. “They don’t grow big for nothing, and they sure are fun to catch.”

Bullish on bass

Towing a 14-foot boat down a bumpy, winding trail through the woods somewhere south of Red Lake, Sumner was optimistic about the day’s fishing prospects. The plan, he said, was to pitch buzz baits and plastic worms along the shoreline reeds and lily pads of a lake that rarely disappoints.

After that, we’d move to another lake known for its cut banks that attract shade-seeking bass on bright, sunny days such as this one.

Launching the small boat off a muddy access that was little more than a path at the base of a hill, Sumner doesn’t bother moving the SUV because he doesn’t expect company. He leaves the trailer in the water and hooks up the electric trolling motor that will allow him to cover the lake in silence.

“Historically, this lake doesn’t care what kind of weather it is,” Sumner said. “These fish bite.”

Time spent outdoors inevitably means close calls, and Sumner points to a spot not far from the access where he had a brush with disaster several years ago while trapping.

The encounter, Sumner recalled, seemed almost familiar.

“I used to have this dream that water was coming over me — a nice, peaceful feeling,” he said.

One cold day in mid-November, Sumner was trapping on the lake and carrying the carcasses of the animals he’d collected on his trap line.

The route required him to cross a creek on a log, something he’d done numerous times without incident.

“I got halfway across, and it was like something hit me in the chest, and back I went” into the water, he said. “It was the most peaceful feeling ever.

“There was my dream.”

Struggling to get the heavy pack off his back and free himself from the icy depths, Sumner remembered the rucksack had emergency straps.

“I popped them off and came flying out of the water,” he said. “It was over my head and it was cold.”

The rucksack, Sumner said, is still down there somewhere.

“I walked all the way out of the woods,” he said. When he got to the highway, no one would pick him up because his clothes were frozen solid, and he looked like an icy apparition.

Fast action

Icy water wouldn’t be a problem on this day. Neither would slow fishing; the bass quickly showed a preference for the Senko-brand plastic worms Sumner tossed into the clear, shallow water.

“Just throw them out and let them sink,” he said. “Kind of watch your line a little bit. See if it moves or twitches.”

The bass were cooperative, fat and sassy, and the bites were frequent. Sumner wasn’t exaggerating when he said the average largemouth would weigh 4 pounds.

“For average size, all of our lakes are like that,” he said, holding up a chunky largemouth with a maw big enough to engulf a large man’s fist.

We switch lakes after lunch, and as Sumner predicted, the bass were hunkered in the shade of the cut banks that extended far beneath the floating bog along the shore.

Sumner hooked a bass on his first cast.

“Throw right to the edge of that bank,” he said. “If you look at the grass, it’s hollow underneath that grass, and when it gets really bright and sunny, these bass will swim right into that cut bank. It’s pretty hollow under that bank. There’s probably numerous bass sitting back up in there.”

We land perhaps 15 largemouths to go with the 15 or more we released on the first lake, along with a bonus 20-inch walleye and a 10-pound pike Sumner manages to bring to the boat without snapping his line.

Songbirds, bullfrogs and a pair of trumpeter swans were our only company all day.

Except for the fish, of course. …

Bass after bass after bass.

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