Trip Report: The Jumbo Perch of Devils Lake

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I don’t keep a bucket list. If I did, one of the items on it going into 2020 would have been ice fishing Devils Lake. When that opportunity recently landed in my lap, I couldn’t resist. It was a “Communicator Camp,” arranged by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), where Devils Lake Tourism and Clam Outdoors hosted several media professionals like myself. 

We assembled the first night, and were given a warm welcome (and the game plan) by Devils Lake Tourism’s Suzie Kenner and Tanner Cherney. Two members of the Clam Outdoors Ice Team– Thayne Jensen and Tony Mariotti- also gave us an overview of all the equipment we’d be using. Everything sounded so good until the conversation turned to the weather. 

Conditions had not been good as of late, and weren’t expected to improve while we were there. I didn’t care. I was confident we were in good hands, and that I would definitely catch more fish than if I’d been stumbling around on that huge lake all on my own. I couldn’t wait; the next 10 hours couldn’t pass fast enough. 

Day One: Getting to Know Devils Lake

Devils Lake pressure ridgeI woke up that first morning a full hour before my alarm; it seemed I couldn’t escape my excitement, even in an unconscious state. When we had all assembled, we headed through town and across the lake. The snow drifts were sometimes impressive, but not ultimately impassable. Just a few hundred yards short of our destination, we encountered an ice ridge that was too long to circumvent. Previous tracks showed where somebody got very stuck when they tried to cross it, so I was fine with taking the long way around. 

When we finally got some holes drilled and things unloaded, I hopped into a Yukon XL Thermal shelter and started catching walleyes immediately. They were active but not eager biters, so Tony helped me refine my presentation. That made a difference. We sat in that spot several hours and picked off fish here and there as they came through. While many were small, the numbers of fish were impressive. We received word that perch were stacked up in another spot, so we headed out about 1:00. 

Devils Lake jumbo perchThose fish must have heard I was coming. They were scarce when we arrived; only a handful were scattered about in that spot, which was over 40 feet deep. Since chances were few and the perch were biting lightly if at all, it was crucial to detect those bites when they occurred. The incredibly thin, straight-hanging Frost Ice braided line helped me feel those tiny taps and pull a couple small perch up. I tried a few different lures and hopped around to different holes, trying to make something happen. The chunky perch ultimately gave me the slip that afternoon. Some in our group did connect with a couple nice ones, which indicated we were doing something right. 

The last spot of the day was a classic Devils Lake location: in about 20 feet of water, over submerged trees. Branches could be seen on my sonar screen there, and my hooks stuck to them a time or two. We were expecting walleyes and a few showed up- just not for me. I did, however, hook my own Devils Lake jumbo perch. It felt good to get that monkey off my back. Proz LakesideWe capped off the day by having supper at Proz Lakeside– a great spot right on the lake. 

Day Two: The Same, But Different

The next morning we fished in rental houses from Woodland Resort, in Creel Bay. The first location was on a break where walleyes were expected. A few small ones gave us some action, but nothing we were hoping for. The rest of our time was spent a short distance away, over the mud in about 43 feet of water. Unlike the previous day, we could see fish on our Vexilars most of the time. However, they were in the same apprehensive mood. 

I shared a house that day with Dave Mull, an outdoor writer from Michigan. For a while, some perch would come through and we would both have a few moments of activity. Many fish gave the impression that they would bite, but few did. I managed to set the hook on a couple nice perch, which were promptly tossed out the door and onto the snow. 

Devils Lake perchI wondered if a simple hook-and-minnow might get some looks, so I rigged that up and dangled it in one of the empty holes. No fish came up on that rod, but it seemed that when the perch came around they would linger a bit longer. My little “decoy” may have held their interest momentarily, or they may have been slowing down- it’s hard to say. Either way, I’m glad I tried it; switching lures seemed to have no effect that morning. 

By the end of our time there, Dave had caught two fat perch and I had caught four. It was truly a pleasure to finally lay hands on a few jumbo perch. 

Lessons learned

Whether I’m out for two hours or two days, each fishing outing teaches me something. I came away from Devils Lake with new memories, new skills, and a whole lot to think about. Here are a few thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head ever since. 

Ice fishing gear has come a long way in 20 years. 

Clam portable sheltersFrom 2000 to 2002, I worked in retail selling fishing goods, including what was available for ice fishing at the time (which wasn’t all that much). The number of ice fishing companies and their products have exploded since. Some of what’s out there is worth buying, and a lot of it is not. The essential items remain constant, but they continue to evolve and improve. Portable houses are a good example.

The Fish Traps were relatively new in the early 2000s, and it was a big deal when they changed fabrics and seat styles. I owned one for over 10 years, and became very acquainted with it. As I sat in the comfort of the Yukon XL, I realized almost no aspect of Clam’s flip-over houses has remain unchanged. From the outer fabric to the seats, it’s obvious Clam has been re-examining and re-designing to make their products better to use. The system for managing the support poles is about a thousand percent better than it was back in the day, which is enough to make me want a house of that style again. Unfortunately, I can only haul hub-style shelters right now, so that’s how it’s going to be for a while. 

Using good ice fishing line makes a difference. 

I’ve used braided line through the ice for years, but never took it seriously and didn’t know how far it has come. Clam set us up on this trip with great rod/reel combos (Jason Mitchell Gen8), strung with Frost Ice line (some fluorocarbon, some braid). I had 6# braided line, and was immediately impressed by its small diameter, how limp it was, and its low visibility. These are all great assets for ice line, especially when the bite is weak and every opportunity for a hookup is precious. I was so impressed by the Frost braid, when I got home I bought some 3# Frost fluorocarbon and one of the Genz in-line reels to put it on. I’ve already put it to work a couple times and there are many trout and panfish days ahead of me yet this year. I will be posting a season-end evaluation of my experiences with those lines, so watch for that. 

Even an outstanding fishery like Devils Lake will make you work. 

Devils Lake perchIce fishing at Devils Lake is downright legendary, and tales of buckets full of fish are all over digital and print media. But it’s not always a cake walk, as we found out. Even though we were clearly in the right places for almost the entire two days, the fish were not in the mood to bite. Sunny skies apparently would have changed the mood of the perch. Unfortunately, that is one component that we humans will never have control over. It was frustrating, but there was nothing to do but fish hard and make the most of it. Sure, it would have been nice to come home having caught limits of walleye and perch, but I was happy to have caught what I did. Besides, catching a few walleyes and several jumbo perch would be considered a triumph in most other places.

An outstanding fishery like Devils Lake will reward you and make you a better angler. 

Yes, no matter where you fish, you can always be victim to non-optimal weather conditions. Those are the times to use all your knowledge and best skills, and crank up the determination. In rising to the challenge, bold moves may be necessary. There’s always something you can do differently, for example, whether it’s moving to a different spot, changing baits, or overhauling your bait presentation. 

When I get discouraged, it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to make those kinds of changes. But doing nothing is rarely the right choice. In a place like Devils Lake, you know good fish are out there, and in large numbers. If you’re willing to pursue them, they will teach you lessons and make you a better angler. I know I learned those kinds of lessons on this trip. 

If I have to work hard to catch a few fish, they will always bring me more satisfaction than a pile of fish that practically jumped out of the hole. I also love a challenge and learning new things. And there is no end to my enthusiasm for learning about a lake and building on previous experiences. For those reasons and because there’s always a chance for crazy-good ice fishing there, Devils Lake hasn’t seen the last of me. 

 

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I dropped into the bait shop at Woodland Resort to pick up an assortment of the Clam lures we were using, just to give them away! Sign into YouTube and comment for your chance to win:

 

 

 

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs Lake

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Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, out onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, but we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Temps were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been a lot worse. 

Mille Lacs tullibeesThe plan was to visit a mud hole where I’d had good action on tullibees two years ago. It sits between several surrounding mud flats, and is about 35 feet deep at its deepest. If we didn’t encounter many tullibees, I had another spot nearby to try. As it was, we had that hole to ourselves, so I felt good about our chances. 

My expectations were low, as far as catching fish was concerned. When I go out myself, my goal is usually to catch something. When I take my kids, however, having fun is the prime mission. We soon had the house set up and holes drilled. I made sure they had places to sit and rods in their hands. It was a good thing, too, because it didn’t take long for my daughter to hook into the first tullibee. It was a fine specimen, about 14 inches. There’s nothing like catching good fish to set the right mood. 

Over the next few hours, tullibees would cycle in and out, but the first flurry of action seemed to be the best. When the fish cooled off a bit, my son started losing interest. I offered to put a minnow on his bobber rig so he wouldn’t have to keep jigging. I had no idea if a tullibee would eat a minnow, but found a tiny one and sent it down the hole. It turns out tullibees will indeed eat minnows, and that next fish was the biggest so far- about 15 and a half inches long. That put a smile on my boy’s face, all right. He wasn’t catching as many fish as his sister, but being able to claim the biggest one seemed to make up for it. 

We never felt the impetus to leave that spot. The fish kept coming back and we kept picking off one or two every once in a while. The kids kept warm in our hub house, which kept them engaged. Abundant food also did its part in keeping them happy. Not once did they ask to leave early, which was a sure sign they were having a great time. But they could not have had as good a day if the tullibees didn’t do their part. 

Mille Lacs tullibeeIn all, they caught 15 nice-sized tullibees between the two of them. Those fish were definitely turned on that day. I know we got lucky, and I’m not overlooking that fact. But I also know that if I’d insisted we spend the whole time trying to find walleyes, it would not have been the same. There’s no way I could have arranged for them to catch as many walleyes as they did tullibees. Plus, they already knew how good those fish would taste smoked, and every time one came through the hole somebody would say how much they were looking forward to eating it. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: kids love eating the fish they catch. I believe it’s a powerful recruitment tool that is, sadly, rarely mentioned. It gives kids a sense of ownership and pride in their experience that ties into their life at home. After all, everybody has to eat. But I believe it’s not just a utilitarian thing; finding and gathering our food is a primal urge that tugs at each of us, no matter how far removed we are from our food source. 

But I digress. 

With about an hour and a half to go before sunset, we packed up and headed about half a mile to the top edge of a nearby mud flat. Since the snow was reasonably deep, it wasn’t hard to find a spot away from trucks and houses and commotion. 

It was clear my kids were getting tired and I didn’t want to overstay our welcome and fray the edges of their enthusiasm. So I promised we wouldn’t stay too long before heading to the pizza joint, and set them up in the house with the sonar and jigging rods while I set out tip-ups. They did a great job of staying engaged despite not seeing any fish come through on the sonar. I think the memory of those vigorous, hard-fighting tullibees was enough to keep them going. 

Mille Lake walleye ice fishingWhen I was done with tip-ups, I picked up a rod and took it outside to probe some of the extra holes we had drilled. Within a minute at the first hole, I heard a bell ring from one of the tip-ups. The kids came out of the house in time to see me set the hook and pull up a nice walleye of 22 inches- right in the middle of the slot. There was no question we would keep that fish. After all, this big kid loves to eat the fish he catches. 

 

See my Video Log entry from that day:

 

 

Harriet Lake Rustic Campground

Harriet Lake Rustic Campground

Most campgrounds way up in Minnesota’s northwoods offer a forest camping experience; it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be plenty of trees, shade, and mosquitoes. Conversely, there are few opportunities to camp in places that offer meadow views or plants and birds that flourish in forest openings. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any mosquitoes, but I will tell you that if sunny open spaces are your cup of tea, Harriet Lake Rustic Campground (R.C.) should be on your list of destinations. What’s more, it’s one of several campgrounds in the Superior National Forest that are free of charge. 

Harriet Lake R.C. is on the site of a former farm. Some remnants of its farming era can still be seen, including what looks like the foundation for a barn. While many such farms in the area have long since grown over and been absorbed by the boreal forest, this one has been maintained as a forest opening for decades now, for the benefit of campers and wildlife alike. When I visited in the spring of 2019, it had recently been blessed by a controlled burn.

Somewhat anecdotally, I was told at the boat landing by someone who identified himself as a Lake County employee that the campground is a well-known place to pick blueberries. I also noticed there were plenty of raspberry and blackberry canes growing on the fringes of the campground. 

The Campsites

To the uninitiated, it might be hard to find where to camp at Harriet Lake R.C. There are, according to my count, only about 11 campsites (The official Superior N.F. brochure says 6), identifiable by fire ring and picnic table, and only 2 have typical parking spurs off the road. They are mostly approached via a dusty 2-track trail off the main campground drive; exercise caution, as they may be muddy or otherwise hazardous to ordinary passenger cars. Aside from the few near the toilet facility (in the boat ramp area), they are fairly spread out and inconspicuous if unoccupied. 

You may spot the first couple on your left as you drive in off County Road 7. The next cluster will be at the northern end of the opening, on your left as the road curves to the right. One- which has a spectacular view of the lake- is more easily found, but is completely exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. Beyond it to the north are 2 more sites, 1 of which offers much privacy and shade in the small group of trees. You will soon pass another campsite on the left, which, I’m told, has its own carry-in access down to Harriet Lake (it was occupied during my visit). 

The last 5 campsites are in the southeastern end of the campground, closest to the vault toilet. The 2 nearest the boat ramp area have the parking spurs, and may receive some shade early and late in the day. My wife and I set up camp not far away, in what is probably the most shaded and spacious of all the sites in the campground. A short distance across the field from us was another site with some late-day tree cover. The last site I found was to the southwest, tucked back in the woods; it was private and well-shaded, and would probably be the recipient of the least wind and most mosquitoes of all the campsites. 

What You Need to Know

The campground at Harriet Lake is designated as a “rustic” campground because it does not offer electricity or water. This means you need to bring your own water or be prepared to collect and filter it from the lake. On the upside, there is still a toilet facility (not too shabby), and camping is free of charge. It was moderately busy in the middle of the week in May; I believe that was due in part to being a free campground. As a result, I imagine it would fill up on the weekends throughout the summer. Since it is a developed area, dispersed camping is not allowed, so you must camp where there is a site with fire ring. 

There are several good fishing lakes in the area, especially for walleyes. Some of them have great boat ramps, including the one at Harriet Lake, which is right in the campground. Another good lake just up the road is Silver Island Lake, where another rustic campground with 8 sites might offer a place to stay if Harriet Lake R.C. is full. 

This part of Minnesota can be a foraging paradise throughout the season. The entire region is productive for berries, mushrooms, and more, and most land is either owned by the state or the feds, so access is easy. With millions of acres in Superior N.F. alone, nobody can say there isn’t enough room to roam. All you need to do is drive another half an hour to leave the crowds behind you. 

 

To read more firsthand descriptions of other state and national forest campgrounds in Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Public Land Camping page. 

 

 

BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout

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Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, hundreds of deep cold lakes lie hidden in the hills and shaggy conifer forests. This is the stronghold of Minnesota’s lake trout population, with dozens of lakes hosting populations of one degree or another. There is a special place in my heart for lake trout, and an honored place on my table for any of the salmonid family. Since our trip to Crystal Lake last spring in the BWCA, I had been looking for my next opportunity to go after more of these delectable fatty fish. Also since last year, I had developed a deep burning desire to take a solo trip, which I had never done before. A permit for one person for Entry Point 44- with lake trout in Ram Lake and Little Trout Lake- seemed the perfect way to scratch both itches.  Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout”

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”

Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019

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Easy victories, camaraderie in the outdoors, a warm place to lay my head at night. These are all things I like as much as the next guy. When I pried myself out of bed last Thursday morning, however, I knew none of these things awaited me on Lake Mille Lacs. The lack of all three things, however, pointed toward a high probability of good fishing, which was more than I could resist. 

The latest buzz hinted that the west side of the main lake was just becoming accessible, and some folks had gotten out to the mud flats on ATVs and snowmobiles and found great fishing. The ice wasn’t reliably thick yet, it was said to be wet around cracks, and roads and bridges had not yet been extended past the bays. I don’t have a snowmobile or ATV, and I have no interest in being that guy who ends up needing a towing hookup at the bottom of the lake. My plan, if you could call it that, was to drive to the lake and see if it looked reasonable to walk out to the nearest mud flat. If it seemed foolhardy, I knew there was some fishing activity happening near some resorts, which I could fall back on. What I found when I arrived exceeded expectations; there was a well-worn road coming off the public access already, which immediately split off in three directions. I quickly packed up and started hightailing it for my destination, some 2 miles distant.  Continue reading “Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019”

Compliance

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The Deer Hunt

It was the third day of deer season. My dad, my brother, and I were done hunting and were standing around by the new blind I’d been sitting in. I glanced westward and noticed somebody in blaze orange walking straight toward us across a neighboring soybean field. Having no idea who it was and what they might want, we went to meet him at the property line. When we got close enough to each other, I could see he was wearing a badge that identified him as a state conservation officer. He introduced himself as Jeremy, we shook hands, and I invited him across the fence so we could talk properly. He asked us about the hunt and checked our licenses.  Continue reading “Compliance”

Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting

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As many times as I’ve suffered from bitingly cold hands and fingers, there is only one time in my entire life that could possibly eclipse the way my fingers felt recently. When I was pretty young, my dad took my brother and me out in the boat to do some last-minute fishing before heading home from the cabin. All I remember was learning how to set the hook, the big juicy bluegills we boated, and my hands being so cold that I probably cried. Late last month, as I gripped my canoe paddle without actually feeling it, my old record for cold hands seemed almost certainly broken. Unlike that memorable day from my childhood, however, I definitely did not shed any tears. This was the last morning of my inaugural whitefish netting trip to northern Minnesota. The air that day was stuck in the low 30s, pushed around by a light wind, and punctuated by intermittent drizzle. The previous four days, unfortunately, were pretty much the same.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting”

Expedition Food: Forager’s Fish Soup

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My wife and I had a great trip to the BWCA last week. My main goal was to catch and eat fish, and the first one (my wife’s first lake trout) fit the bill perfectly. I had tentatively planned stops at other lakes to fish for brook trout and splake, but the weather forced us to make choices that prevented it. Total time spent fishing was not what I’d hoped, but that’s why we don’t count our successes until afterwards. Persisting through the rain was a triumph in its own right, and fish soup was our reward. Therefore, I considered our time on Crystal Lake a resounding success with a lunch of lake trout soup and supper of fried walleye. Continue reading “Expedition Food: Forager’s Fish Soup”

BWCA Entry Point #64, destination: Crystal Lake

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End of May, 2018

For my fortieth birthday, I told my wife I’d like to take the river fishing float trip I’d been thinking about for over 5 years. As spring approached, I started to think critically about this plan, and realized that bad weather could turn a good river trip really bad in a hurry. On a river, we’d have a starting point, a destination, and a finite time to reach that destination. Rain- especially of the relentless kind- would not only make that time miserable, but potentially dangerous. Shifting the trip to the Boundary Waters would not only give us flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but also a chance to get into the lake trout that had successfully eluded me over the winter. Game on.  Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point #64, destination: Crystal Lake”

Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)

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There is a pathetic time of year that comes after the ice melts and before spring really gets going. Fishing is slow, and turkey hunting hasn’t yet started. It seems every year during this time I find myself itching to get outside and just do something, if only because the weather can be so seductive. This year, I came across a couple mentions of spring sucker fishing that really piqued my interest, especially when I read that suckers are supposed to be tasty when smoked. I thought about when and where I might be able to try this, but didn’t come up with much; I spent a couple hours probing a creek by my house with no results. Then it dawned on me that I’d have the opportunity to try some cold northern rivers on my way to see the sharp-tailed grouse dance (another story, another time). Perfect. Once I’d identified my chance, I couldn’t not try my hand at sucker fishing.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)”

Minnesota Fishing 2018: Know the rules

Yesterday I was talking to someone I hadn’t seen in several months, and he told me of an encounter he had with a conservation officer. To make the story short, he ended up receiving a fine due to not following some of the rules. He has been a resident of Minnesota for a relatively short time, and wasn’t aware of all the ins and outs of our fishing regulations. I told him some of the things I knew off the top of my head, but knew I couldn’t tell him everything in our short time together. It was a good reminder to me that I hadn’t looked much at the fishing rules since the 2018-19 regulations took effect.  New regulations are added or changed every year, and over time, lots of things can change. Limits have generally lowered over the decades, and the number of lakes with special regulations has grown- a lot. Continue reading “Minnesota Fishing 2018: Know the rules”

Do Something New: Ice Fishing for Mille Lacs Tullibees

Mille Lacs ice walleye, tullibee

As I coasted down the hill into Garrison, the eastern sky glowed with the clean blue light of impending sunrise.  A few minutes later, a lone cloud streak in the East lit up like a hot poker.  I always enjoy a good sunrise and this one made me feel I was in the right place at the right time.  After waiting out what seemed like weeks of below-zero punishment, I was looking forward to spending the entire day on Lake Mille Lacs, in the sun and near-thawing temps.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Ice Fishing for Mille Lacs Tullibees”