ON FISH LAKE, Minn. (MCT) - It's a classic northern day on Fish Lake.
You can read that two ways. On this early December afternoon, the temperature hovers a few degrees above zero. The wind is light from the west, but it stings your cheeks. At mid-afternoon, the sun seems to be working pretty hard just to stay above the tree line.
It's a northern day in December.
A handful of fishing shelters dot the white lakescape, most near the narrows coming from Hi Banks Resort and opening to the main lake. In those shelters, only one kind of fish is biting today: Northern pike.
Roger Bailey of Brookston has the largest northern among a survey of all the shelters. It's nearly a 5-pounder, nicely frosted up in the chill air. Bailey caught it on a small spoon, the name of which he couldn't recall, and half a minnow. The pike came from 14 feet of water.
Roger is fishing with his son, Aaron Bailey, also of Brookston. They're an affable pair, and they're making light of their current situation. It's cold both outside and inside their fishing shelter.
"We don't have a heater. We forgot it at home. We're a little chilly," Aaron said.
But they are making the best of it. They have come for some early-ice fishing on this popular lake, and a little chill won't send them home.
"We're going to tough it out 'til dark," Aaron said.
Early-ice fishing is usually some of the season's best. But this year got off to a slow start on Fish Lake, said Kim Wagner, who owns Hi Banks Resort with her husband, Tim. She estimates the lake has about 6 to 7 inches of ice.
"Now it's starting to pick up," Wagner said last week. "I guess they're getting walleyes, perch and northerns."
Not far from the Baileys' shelter, Duluth's Jeremy Dammann already has one northern pike in his shelter. It's about a 1½-pounder.
Dammann isn't particular about what he catches.
"Whatever's gonna bite my line," he says.
Dammann has thrown a couple of other notherns back. It's his second time on Fish Lake this ice-fishing season.
"The other time I was out, I got about 10 walleyes and four or five crappies," Dammann says.
The walleyes were small, and he didn't keep any of them. He usually uses crappie minnows because they catch more fish, he says. He knows Fish Lake can be unpredictable.
"It's on, and it's off," he says. "It seems kind of slow today."
Dammann plans to fish until dark. The ice-fishing is often best about sunset to just after sunset on Fish Lake.
Tom Gavitt of Duluth and his friend Zach Graves of Hermantown are each fishing in their own shelters a short walk from where Damman is fishing. Before even opening his shelter to a couple of visitors, Gavitt shouts out a fishing report.
"Nothing but northerns," he says.
Three of them - his limit - are ensconced in a plastic bag just outside Gavitt's shelter. He unzips the door and points at the fish.
"Those are going to be pickled pretty soon," he says.
The talk quickly turns to the condition of Fish Lake. The ice is good, but recent snows have brought up a layer of slush. Anglers are forging out on the lake on snowmobiles and four-wheelers, but it can get a little sloppy. Gavitt made an exploratory jaunt on his four-wheeler before putting up his shelter, and the slush that came up is still visible in his tracks.
Next door, Graves also has three pike on the ice, including one just over 3½ pounds. His will be pickled, too - by Gavitt. All of the men's pike have come on a tip-up line with smelt on a large C-shaped smelt hook.
"The guy I was with yesterday got four walleyes, and I got one crappie," Gavitt says.
Both men are with the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard, which deployed to Iraq earlier this year. Over there, Graves was among several anglers who caught fish in one of Saddam Hussein's private impoundments.
Fish Lake is better, Graves says.
"It's nice not hearing gunshots in the background," he says.
© 2007, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.