RED LAKE INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn. - We could see the fish was a big walleye by the flash of its tail, which was the size of a large man’s hand, and it wanted no part of Darwin Sumner’s best efforts to reel it to the surface.
“Whoa, that’s a big one,” Sumner, of Red Lake, Minn., said as the fish bull-dogged its way back to the root beer-colored depths, peeling line from his drag at will. “That’s a big walleye.”
The sight of a big walleye below the boat never gets old. All Sumner could do was hang on tight and enjoy the ride.
It took a few minutes, but Sumner managed to coax the walleye into the boat without losing it. A stretch of the tape put the fish at 28 inches, and judging by its ample girth, the blackish-gold beauty likely weighed 9 pounds or more.
The big walleye capped a magical 45 minutes that saw two of us release fish measuring 27 inches, 26 inches and 25 inches - among others - from the same stretch of shoreline.
Not bad for a small lake that covers a mere 190 acres.
“And there are bigger ones out there,” Sumner assured.
Outfitter manager at Seven Clans Casino south of Red Lake, Sumner, 53, was showing off Sandy Lake, one of more than 25 small lakes inside reservation boundaries that are open to nontribal anglers. The casino this spring launched Red Lake Outdoors, a venture that features all-inclusive guided fishing packages and the opportunity to fish two or three of the small lakes in the same day.
“Just show up, and we will take you fishing,” Sumner said.
While a handful of the lakes have big walleyes, others offer the opportunity to tangle with everything from lake trout, brook trout and largemouth bass, to pike, crappies and bluegills.
“Our lakes are so unpressured,” Sumner said. “”If people want to catch fish of any species, this is the place to come. You can jump to 27 different lakes within a matter of 20 minutes depending on the species you want to target.”
According to Pat Brown, tribal fisheries biologist for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, the small lakes within the Red Lake Indian Reservation have been open to non-band anglers since the 1950s, with the requirement they buy a special license and be accompanied by a tribal guide.
“It was never really publicized,” Brown said. “It was more, say, a tribal member who had a friend that wanted to go fishing. A lot of the doctors from down in Bemidji would come up, but other than that, there was very little fishing pressure.”
With the launch of Red Lake Outdoors, the casino has taken a big step toward promoting tourism on the reservation, a destination that might not have been on many anglers’ radar screens. The packages don’t include tribal waters of Lower and Upper Red lakes, which remain off-limits to non-band members.
Sumner, who also oversees a youth fishing league and a series of youth cultural learning camps throughout the year, said he’s been guiding the small lakes for more than 20 years. He also fishes numerous bass tournaments throughout the region.
“When I first started guiding, people would say, ’Is it safe up there?’” Sumner recalls. “I’d say, ’Sure it’s safe; it’s just like anywhere else.’”
The challenge is getting that word out to others. The fishing speaks for itself.
“We’re pretty happy with the way things are going,” Sumner said. “Fishing has been phenomenal.”
Scott Jensen of Minneapolis and his son Aaron, 11, discovered that for themselves June 9, when they booked a half-day casino package. Fishing with guide Daris Rosebear, 22, they started the morning on a small lake fishing rainbow trout and brook trout before finishing the day for walleyes, pike and bass on Sandy Lake.
“He picked us up right away in the morning; we didn’t have to bring anything,” Jensen, 52, said. “He just asked us, ’What do you want to fish for?’”
They caught several trout in the morning, Jensen said, and he released a 27-inch walleye - his personal-best - in the afternoon on Sandy Lake.
Aaron, meanwhile, landed a largemouth bass that flirted with 4 pounds.
“It was great,” Jensen said. “I had a really good time. It felt like a fly-in fishing trip kind of deal. We didn’t see anybody else the whole day.”
Brown, the tribal fisheries biologist, said the small lakes managed for bass and panfish are self-sustaining, but the lakes with trout and walleyes are reliant on stocking. Using stock from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Brown said the tribal Department of Natural Resources stocks Sandy and the other small walleye lakes with 5,000 fingerlings annually.
A recent lake survey confirmed the health of Sandy Lake’s walleye population, he said.
“I was amazed by the amount of walleye I was seeing in 5 to 6 feet of water,” Brown said. “They’re big fish and in good shape.”
For the first time in more than 20 years, nontribal anglers also can keep walleyes from the small lakes on the reservation, following a resolution the Red Lake Tribal Council passed earlier this spring. The limit is three, with a 20- to 28-inch protected slot and one walleye longer than 28 inches allowed.
Brown said catch-and-release will be crucial to maintaining the quality of fishing the small lakes now provide.
“For me, that’s one of my worries,” he said. “It’s nice to see people come and enjoy it; I just hope they don’t get overfished. It’s such a unique opportunity, and I hope they can sustain it.”
Sumner also had planned to show off one of the reservation’s trout lakes last week, but it’s hard to leave a lake when you’re catching 25- to 28-inch walleyes. The fish were relatively shallow, and catching them was as simple as pitching a jig into shallow water and working it back to the drop-off.
We catch at least 25 walleyes, and probably half again that many northerns, in six hours on the water.
Count to five, feel the “thunk” and set the hook. On a lake we had to ourselves.
It doesn’t get much better than that.