Small lakes in Red Lake Indian Reservation provide high-quality fishing opportunities

REDBY, Minn. -- The fish twisting and turning some 20 feet below the boat clearly was a lake trout, and it wasn't the least bit interested in our company on this sunny Tuesday morning in late June.

REDBY, Minn. -- The fish twisting and turning some 20 feet below the boat clearly was a lake trout, and it wasn't the least bit interested in our company on this sunny Tuesday morning in late June.

"I hope they're biting," Al Pemberton had said less than half an hour earlier as he launched his 16-foot Lund off a sandy beach at the base of a grassy hill leading to the lake.

They were, and the proof danced several feet below us at the end of Pemberton's 12-pound-test line. Splashes of sunlight occasionally caught the laker's silvery flanks, giving the fish an almost eerie sheen.

In the crystal-clear water, the fish appeared close enough to reach out and touch. After a near-miss with the net by Pemberton's awestruck fishing partner, a 5-pound lake trout, the perfect size for eating, flopped in the bottom of the boat.

That didn't take long.


We could have been fishing a remote Canadian lake, catching lake trout surrounded by pine, spruce and birch trees, our only company loons and eagles and other assorted wildlife.

We were, except for the Canadian part.

We were fishing a small lake in the heart of the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

Relatively unknown

It isn't well known, but several small lakes on the reservation are open to nontribal members by special license. Visitors also must hire a tribal guide registered and licensed through the band.

The opportunity doesn't extend to 152,000-acre Lower Red Lake or the 60,000 acres of Upper Red Lake that lie within reservation boundaries, which are open only to Red Lake Band members.

But the smaller lakes provide some impressive fishing opportunities.

According to Pemberton, 54, director of the Red Lake Band's Department of Natural Resources, that includes everything from bluegills and largemouth bass -- species vary by lake -- to the lake trout we catch on Green Lake, an 80-acre jewel near the town of Redby.


"There's quite a few lake trout swimming around out here," Pemberton said.

Small before big

No wonder, then, that Pemberton, of Redby, spends more time fishing the smaller lakes than he does on the sometimes-treacherous waters of Lower and Upper Red.

"Why should I when I have all of this in my backyard?" he said.

Pemberton, who also serves on the Red Lake Tribal Council, says he takes maybe seven or eight people a year fishing on the small lakes within the reservation. Most outsiders, he says, think Red Lake's restrictions also apply to other reservation lakes.

"It would be good for the tribe if they got more people, but I don't think a lot of people realize (the opportunity) is there," Pemberton said. "They're surprised. Just the thought of going out and catching two or three different kinds of fish during the day, they like that.

"You don't have to fish the big lake."

Pemberton on this day plans to show off two of the reservation's lakes. We'll spend the morning testing the waters of Green for lake trout. After lunch, we'll hit Bass Lake, a shallower lake well off the beaten path that teems with pike, panfish, bass and some big walleyes.


Our first stop, Green, has a natural herring forage base, and the band stocks lake trout every few years, using adult fish from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's federal hatchery in Wisconsin.

The fish don't reproduce, Pemberton says, but they do well in Green.

"It's pretty good they let us have them," Pemberton said.

The screen on Pemberton's depth-finder shows most of the lake trout are holding in 35 to 40 feet of water. Green and other trout lakes on the reservation are limited to electric motors, and we troll deep-diving crankbaits far behind the boat.

The lures might not dive to 40 feet, but the lake trout can see a long ways in the clear water.

'Trout drought' ends

In the way lake trout fishing often is, there's a lull after Pemberton catches the first lake trout, and we troll for nearly an hour before he begins to mark concentrations of fish.

We spend the time making boat conversation, covering everything from fishing to Minnesota high school hockey.

Pemberton also is a devoted Minnesota Vikings fan, which by default qualifies him as an optimist. He has the same outlook when it comes to fishing. If we're lucky, Pemberton says, maybe we'll tie into a real lunker. Lakers weighing 15 pounds aren't uncommon -- his grandson, Brennen Pemberton, 13, caught one just a few days earlier -- and bigger fish lurk in Green's depths.

"There's one that's 25-30 pounds," he said. "I thought I had him a couple of years ago."

Pemberton says he fought that fish more than an hour, only to discover when he got it to the boat that he'd foul-hooked a lake trout in the cheek.

No pressure, I joke, but I haven't caught a lake trout since a 2005 fly-in trip to northern Manitoba.

It wasn't for lack of trying.

"They're showing up on the depthfinder," Pemberton said. "Now, if we can just get them to bite."

The words are barely out of his mouth when I feel the smash of a lake trout. There's no guessing when these fish hit.

Then I see it far below, doing the lake trout dance. It barrels for the depths at the sight of the boat, and I hang on and enjoy the ride until Pemberton sweeps up the 5-pound lake trout in his net.

After three agonizing years, the "trout drought" is history.

I keep the fish for the grill. Half an hour later, I catch another that's too big to keep. Barely 10 minutes after that, another lake trout slams my line, and I eventually land a fish that we estimate weighs 10 to 12 pounds.

Three lake trout in 45 minutes; all, once again, is right with the world.

"We know where they're at now," Pemberton says.

Career switch

A lifelong hunting and fishing fanatic, Pemberton took over the helm of the Red Lake DNR six years ago. As director, he oversees a department of about 80 employees who work in such areas as fish, wildlife, forestry and waters.

It was quite a change from his old job as a forestry technician taking inventory of timber stands for the tribal DNR.

"I was happy where I was," Pemberton said. "You've got to like being out in the boonies to do that. I liked timber sales. It's a lot different being the boss."

Still, he makes time to get outdoors.

"I like it all," Pemberton said. "Ducks, geese, partridges or deer.

"I was hooked on fishing a long time ago," he said. "It's a lot of fun. My wife did it for awhile, but she said I stayed out too long."

There's no such thing as staying out too long on a sunny day on a beautiful lake where the lake trout are biting, but there's new water to explore.

We've landed seven lake trout, releasing all but two, when we break for lunch after four hours of fishing.

Hungry pike

If the lake trout were cooperative, the northern pike were downright voracious on Bass Lake, which Pemberton reached after we bounce in his truck through the woods on a maze of roads less traveled.

Several places would be impassable after a rainstorm.

Pemberton's grandson and frequent fishing partner, Brennen, joins us for the afternoon, and we release perhaps 50 pike in about 2½ hours casting weed lines with small jigs and spinners with twister tails.

Most of the pike are 5 pounds or less, but we land a half-dozen 30 inches or larger.

Pemberton catches the biggest, a thick and healthy 38-inch northern that casts an imposing form in the water.

"He hit and didn't move," Pemberton said. "There's bigger ones in here. I let one go in here that was 24 pounds."

The lake has bass and walleyes, too, but that will have to wait until next time. There's not another boat -- or person -- in sight.

Most band members, he says, prefer to fish Red Lake walleyes.

"Can you imagine how many people would be in here if this was on the outside?" Pemberton says, referring to areas off the reservation. "These little lakes don't get bothered too much."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Related Topics: FISHING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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