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Seeing 'green' on New Year's Day: Fishing trip to Lake Winnipeg lives up to the good reports

Lake Winnipeg beckoned New Year's Day for Brad Dokken and two friends as they unloaded the gear and prepared to hit the ice for what would turn out to be a great day of fishing. (Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Photos don't do justice to the iridescent greenish-blue color of Lake Winnipeg walleyes, such as this 23.5-incher Brad Dokken released New Year's Day.2 / 3
The Live Target Baitball fitted with a Crank Weight proved to be a productive walleye lure New Year's Day on Lake Winnipeg. (Brad Dokken/ Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

ON LAKE WINNIPEG, Man.—We'd stopped to scan the horizon and consider our options for setting up to fish when the snowmobile I was driving flooded and wouldn't start again.

Rather than fight with the snowmobile, we decided to cut our losses and set up the portable house.

The snowmobile had decided for us: This is where we would fish.

Turns out the snowmobile made an excellent choice.

Two friends and I spent New Year's Day on Lake Winnipeg and had an absolute blast catching greenback walleyes.

What a great way to start the New Year.

Our destination on this day was Balsam Beach, a popular fishing spot on the east side of Lake Winnipeg about an hour's drive northeast of Winnipeg.

Reports were good, and the fishing we encountered definitely lived up to the hype. We didn't keep track, but it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say the three of us landed upwards of 40 walleyes on the day.

There were no monsters, but pretty much every walleye was of the "perfect eater" variety. I landed big fish honors on the day with a walleye that measured about 23½ inches. That's far short of the trophies for which Lake Winnipeg is known, but considering we didn't have any intelligence on fishing hotspots and basically plopped ourselves down on a patch of ice hoping for the best, I'll take it.

Early for us

By our standards, at least, we got a relatively early start on the day and pulled away from my friend's house near Lockport, Man., about 8:30 a.m. New Year's Day and were headed north on Provincial Highway 59 a few minutes later.

There's a lot of snow on the ground—and on the ice—this winter, and we opted to access the lake with snowmobiles rather than plow with a pickup through the drifts that cover the lake.

That was a good choice, and judging by the lineup of vehicles along the gravel road into Balsam Beach, dozens of other anglers had the same idea.

Massive Lake Winnipeg loomed in the distance, and hundreds of fish houses, portable shelters and even the occasional hardy soul sitting outside on a bucket dotted the horizon of the big lake.

Morning clouds had given way to clear, blue sky. Best of all, there was almost no wind.

We quickly unloaded the snowmobiles, hitched up the tow sleds and headed onto the ice.

All of the holes were drilled before 10 a.m., thanks to my friend's ION battery-powered auger. It chewed through the 20-or-so inches of ice with little effort, and I'm sure all of the holes were drilled and cleared of slush before we even would have gotten his old temperamental gas auger started.

That cold-blooded machine caused us more than one headache over the years.

On 'Target'

Walleyes on Lake Winnipeg have shown a preference for big, flashy lures such as flutter spoons and lipless rattling crankbaits. Looking through my tackle collection, I came across a crankbait I received last year, a "Live Target Baitball," so-called because of the lifelike baitfish embedded in the plastic body of the lure.

More than one "expert" has touted the pricey Live Target, which retails for north of $15, as THE lure on Lake Winnipeg, but I was skeptical it would live up to the hype. It almost pains me to admit this, but the Live Target Baitball definitely made a believer out of me—and my fishing partners.

I was convinced within seconds of lowering the lure down the hole.

I'd noticed a big red blip barely a foot below the ice on my electronics as I prepared to drop the lure to the bottom 15 feet below, but I'd passed it off as interference or perhaps a lingering piece of slush below the hole.

Instead, the blip was a walleye swimming high in the water column, and it wasted no time smacking the Live Target.

I hadn't even gotten the lure 2 feet under the ice, and I had the first walleye of the morning, a perfect eater greenback. The iridescent greenish-blue color of these Lake Winnipeg walleyes never ceases to amaze me.

Added weight

I had weighted the Live Target with a Crank Weight, a nifty clip-on weight system devised a few years ago by Bruce Mosher of Today's Tackle in Beltrami, Minn., best known for the Ice Buster Bobber. Mosher since has sold the product rights to Clam Corp., which now markets the Crank Weight.

It worked like a charm New Year's Day.

For whatever reason, the walleyes were all over the water column last Sunday, and I caught fish everywhere from within inches of the bottom to mere inches below the hole. Rare was the time one of us wasn't marking fish on our electronics, and in my case, when I got the lure in front of them, the walleyes reacted and hit the Live Target 75 percent to 80 percent of the time, sometimes racing up several feet to strike.

That's an amazing average.

Judging by the walleyes cleaned that night, the fish obviously were feeding on minnows and were fooled by the Live Target's lifelike appearance. The big-billed crankbait is made for casting and trolling but fitted with the Crank Weight, it worked like a charm fished vertically in the water column.

I never so much as tipped it with a minnow head.

The day flew by in a blur of walleyes and hooksets—and yes, more than a few missed fish—and we reluctantly packed up about 4 p.m. for the short snowmobile ride back to shore, which my friend measured off at 2.1 kilometers, or about 1.3 miles.

Spending a day with friends catching fish on Lake Winnipeg was a perfect way to ring in 2017. Thanks in part to a flooded snowmobile, the fishing we enjoyed New Year's Day sets a high standard for the rest of the year, but that's fine by me.

The pursuit is part of the fun—and what keeps us coming back.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. 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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