RED LAKE, Minn. – The motorists whizzing by the small lake along state Highway 1 on this perfect early fall afternoon probably had no idea what they were missing.
That much was obvious by the boat traffic. Or, more specifically, the lack of boat traffic.
Daris Rosebear had the water to himself, as he does most days, in pursuit of the slab crappies and largemouth bass that inhabit this small lake on Red Lake Nation lands just outside of Red Lake city limits.
Rosebear, 31, has been a tribal guide for the past dozen years, first for Seven Clans Casino, until it discontinued its guided fishing service in 2016, and then on his own as operator of Rosebear Guide Service.
While all of Lower Red Lake and the tribal waters of Upper Red Lake are only open to enrolled members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, 27 small lakes and the portion of the Red Lake River below the dam on reservation lands are accessible to nontribal anglers who hire a tribal guide and buy a nonresident fishing permit.
Offering a mixed bag of trout, panfish, largemouth bass, walleyes and pike, the small lakes on reservation lands have become a popular destination in recent years for anglers in search of something different.
The trout lakes are reliant on stocking, but the panfish lakes are mostly self-sustaining, said Pat Brown, tribal biologist for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
“I will go into Red (Lake) and pull some additional crappie brood stock out and transplant these fish into the small lakes on the reservation,” Brown said. “The hope is that they will spawn and then contribute to the crappie population in the future.
“We do have some excellent fishing on these lakes. It’s very easy to get spoiled.”
With access to that kind of fishing, Rosebear has carved out a steady client base through word of mouth and a popular Facebook group that has some 3,100 members. Trout and panfish are always popular, he says, but many clients aren’t fussy about what they catch.
“Whatever’s biting, most of the time,” he said. And with so much water from which to choose, there is no shortage of options.
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Rosebear isn’t the only tribal guide, but he’s probably the busiest and most well-known. Business has been steady since May, when fishing season opened, he says.
“I’ve probably seen five other guides out all summer,” Rosebear said. “So there wasn’t too much pressure again this year.”
Like many businesses, Rosebear’s fishing guide service took a hit last year when the COVID-19 pandemic descended, and the Red Lake Nation closed its boundaries. The reservation reopened in October 2020, Rosebear says, and he had a busy winter of guiding trout anglers on the small lakes.
He spent most of last year catching walleyes by hook-and-line on “the big lake” for the Red Lake Nation Fishery, the tribe’s commercial fishing operation, to make up for the loss of guide service income.
“I made some pretty good money off it,” he said.
From bluegills to crappies
The original plan on this late September afternoon was to fish for big bluegills on a small lake known for kicking out sunfish measuring 10 inches or more, but recent rainfall made that plan a dicey proposition. Many of the small lakes are on minimum maintenance forest roads that can be muddy and treacherous after it rains. The area had received a fair amount of rain in recent days, and playing it safe and not getting stuck seemed like the smarter option.
Besides, it’s tough to beat a crappie lake on a crisp fall day surrounded by trees in prime fall color.
There’d be no long boat ride to the fishing hotspot this afternoon. Launching his 15-foot Alumacraft from the concrete boat ramp, Rosebear switched on the trolling motor, and we had our lines in the water within yards of the dock.
The spot had produced several dandy crappies during a guide trip a few days earlier, Rosebear said. Because of the lake’s water clarity, early mornings and late afternoons tend to produce the best action.
“I chased them all over the lake this year, from one side to the next,” Rosebear said. “Now, they’re back in front of the dock.”
Rosebear says he caught a 17-inch crappie on the lake when he was about 13 years old, and a guide client landed a 16¾-inch crappie two years ago. Fish that size are rare in the realm of crappie fishing, but anglers can still expect plenty of action for crappies up to about 12½ inches or so most days, he says.
As for numbers, Rosebear put it like this:
“A lot, really,” he said. “When they’re going, we can probably get 50 easy. I’ve fished this lake a lot this year because the crappies were active the whole summer.”
The fishing was simple. Using 1/16-ounce hair jigs from Sharp Dressed Jigs of Owatonna clipped to a spinner blade, we trolled back and forth in front of the dock in about 14 feet of water.
Every pass produced a crappie or two and the occasional small pike, but it wasn’t the kind of action Rosebear had encountered during his previous trip a few days earlier. Rain and a cold front the previous day could have been a factor, Rosebear suggested.
He needn’t have worried.
As the sun dipped toward the western horizon, it seemed to bathe the trees – already resplendent in their fall colors – in shades of gold and orange. It was difficult to tell where the horizon ended and the water began.
It was about that time that Rosebear trolled his way to a new spot and hit crappie gold.
These fish were bigger, more aggressive, and every pass produced multiple crappies, along with a bonus largemouth bass, in 17 feet of water.
Like jewels with fins, crappies are a fish to be admired, and every bite was a treat. The case can be made that crappies are even tastier than walleyes, but all of the fish landed on this crisp fall afternoon were released.
As Rosebear had predicted, the bite lasted about an hour – make that a glorious hour – until the sun disappeared behind the trees.
The afternoon that started off slow finished with a flourish. It was time to head for home and call it an afternoon well-spent.
The final crappie count? A lot, really.
If you go
Nonresident tribal licenses to fish the small lakes on the Red Lake Indian Reservation cost $10 daily, $25 weekly and $50 for the season and are available at the Red Lake Law Enforcement Complex in Red Lake, Minn. Bring correct change.
Season for largemouth bass, walleye, black crappie, sunfish, perch, pike, lake trout and rough fish is open from the second Saturday in May through Oct. 31; season for rainbow trout and brook trout is continuous.
More information on fishing the small tribal lakes is available at redlakednr.org/fishing-regulations.
– Brad Dokken