SOMEWHERE ON LAKE WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Immersed in a shroud of fog and bouncing across the icy surface of a lake that now was covered with nearly a foot of water and slush, it occurred to me that someone who'd never icefished might find this whole experience a bit unsettling.
It was hard to tell where the ice ended and the horizon began.
As for me, I had "greenback" walleyes on the brain, and I was with a group of people who knew what they were doing and where they were going, thanks to the magic of GPS technology. All I had to do was hang on in the backseat and avoid banging my head on the roof as Stu McKay rumbled across the water and slush in his white SUV.
Besides, there was nearly 3 feet of ice below us, and bumpy rides and slush go with the territory when it comes to late-winter fishing.
Owner of Cats on the Red resort in Lockport, Manitoba, McKay and his fishing partner, Holly Chow, were wrapping up a four-day excursion hosting a small group of outdoor communicators and fishing industry types to show off their home water and demonstrate why Lake Winnipeg, located about an hour north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has become one of the hottest ice fishing destinations in North America.
The reason: Size matters.
Without question, massive Lake Winnipeg, the 11th-largest freshwater lake in the world, offers perhaps the best shot at a trophy walleye this side of Lake Erie. Known for the iridescent bluish-green coloration that appears to be unique to Lake Winnipeg, greenback walleyes will average 20 inches, and fish that tip the scales at 10 pounds and more aren't unusual.
Earlier this winter, an angler fishing with McKay and Chow released a walleye on the Red River that measured a whopping 33 inches and likely tickled 15 pounds. The fish had migrated into the river from Lake Winnipeg.
This winter alone, Chow said, she's seen 30 walleyes measuring 28 inches -- the minimum to qualify for Manitoba's Master Angler program -- or larger landed; she's caught seven.
"Every hook-set, you have the potential for a big fish," said Chow, Winnipeg. "You just don't know ... it's such a mystery."
Fishing for fun
Most of the crew had left for home on this foggy Sunday morning, and for McKay and Chow, this day was more about catching their collective breaths and having a bit of fun. Also along for the ride were Andre Desrosiers, a natural resources officer from Selkirk, Man., enjoying a day off to go fishing; daughter Janelle Desrosiers, Winnipeg; Travis Dunbar, Winnipeg; and Coleen Lewis, a family friend from Austin, Texas who has spent a fair bit of time north of the border since marrying a Canadian.
Lewis's goal: To catch her first walleye. And clean it and cook it and eat it.
Andre Desrosiers led us through the morning fog, following his GPS to a spot a few miles from shore where he and his daughter and their two friends had done well the previous afternoon.
The ticket, he said, was big baits that rattled.
"Yesterday, they'd gobble them right down to the throat," Desrosiers said.
Ice conditions were going south in a hurry, and the odds of accessing the lake until the close of fishing season March 31 weren't looking very good.
"This ice is getting rotten pretty fast," Desrosiers said. "We won't be fishing here in two weeks, I don't think."
Their holes from the previous day were still open and waiting for us when we arrived, our anticipation mounting.
"I feel a big fish coming on," Chow said. "Maybe it's indigestion, but I think it's a big fish."
Sharing the fun
Chow, 50, grew up near Riding Mountain National Park in western Manitoba and has been involved in the outdoors industry since she started fishing bass and walleye tournaments on both sides of the border in 1992. An avid hunter, Chow also was the first woman on Bass Pro Shops' Redhead pro hunting team.
"A natural love of the outdoors," she said, is what got her started.
Chow started guiding for Cats on the Red last summer after a mutual friend introduced her to McKay. She's now Cats on the Red's head guide and goes for catfish in the summer and walleyes in the fall and winter.
Her nickname: Mama Cats.
"I just love the clients," she said. "The catfishing is remarkable, and I really love promoting the ice fishing industry."
As a female guide, Chow said she's especially interested in getting more women and young people involved in fishing. One way she's doing that is with a group she's dubbed the "Canadian Jigglers."
The goal, she said, is to offer women's-only weekend fishing excursions for a discounted price, similar to the Becoming an Outdoors Woman programs so popular in Minnesota and North Dakota. The only requirement for the women, she said, is a desire to fish.
"All they have to do is come out and try it," Chow said. "And when they do, they're going to get hooked."
Chow's winter workload says a lot about the growing popularity of ice fishing on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River that feeds it.
Like so many other anglers, Chow only started fishing Lake Winnipeg two winters ago, but there's little doubt it's made a big impression.
With little obvious structure in the south basin of the lake, knowing where to set up is always a guessing game.
"I was just amazed," she said. "There's no rhyme or reason (on where to fish). If there is, I haven't figured it out. It's just a walleye factory, as far as I'm concerned."
Known mainly for its commercial walleye fishery, which in recent years has tallied annual harvests approaching 10 million pounds, Lake Winnipeg was rarely fished among hook-and-line anglers before McKay, Desrosiers and a handful of their friends tried a few spots beyond the mouth of the Red River late one March about five years ago.
"I'd drive down the main channel of the Red, and there were three or four permanent houses a mile or so out, and that was it," Desrosiers said. "I checked them, and they always had fish.
"It finally clicked."
Because of its sheer size, the lake is rarely fished hook-and-line during the open-water season, but the increase in winter pressure has been "exponential," Desrosiers said. One popular access point near Matlock, Man., on the far southwestern corner of the lake has gone from a couple of permanent houses to more than 100.
"And that's not counting the portables," Desrosiers said. "It was the power of the Internet."
Chad Hornbaker, a wildlife inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works at the U.S. Customs station in Pembina, N.D., said he's really noticed the uptick in anglers fishing Lake Winnipeg the past couple of winters.
Hornbaker, who also has been bitten by the Lake Winnipeg bug, fished with Desrosiers and McKay on some of their early forays onto the lake. Now, he says, places such as Cats on the Red, hotels in Selkirk and the South Beach Resort and Casino near the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg routinely are filled with American ice anglers, especially in March.
"I couldn't tell you numbers exactly, but the first time I went up there and went out with Andre and Stu, there were very few people out there even on a weekend," Hornbaker said.
He said the contrast was striking when he fished the big lake last weekend.
"The casino was full of trucks and great big rigs -- snowmobiles, four-wheelers, Argos and ATVs with tracks," Hornbaker said. "There are a lot of Minnesota guys, and I've seen South Dakota, Iowa plates and North Dakota plates."
The attraction became apparent minutes after we dropped our lines in the water Sunday morning. Using large baits such as Salmo Chubby Darters and Reel Bait flasher jigs, our crew landed probably 50 walleyes up to 25 inches in the small, fog-enshrouded area that was our universe.
The walleyes came in fits and spurts, a pattern McKay said has characterized the winter.
Lewis, the Texan in the group, was undaunted by the sloppy ice and achieved her goal by landing her first greenback. Her shrieks of excitement as she played the fish likely penetrated the fog for a mile or more. Janelle Desrosiers used her cell phone to capture the moment on video and soon had it posted on Facebook for the world to see.
All of this happened in an area of less than 100 square yards -- in the middle of a lake that covers more than 9,000 square miles.
"It makes you wonder," McKay said. "What's in this system when you can come out here -- there's no structure -- and boom, you're catching fish."