Published January 15, 2012, 12:00 AM

Early pike bite draws a crowd to Wild Rice Lake

One moment, the seven anglers were standing atop the bare ice of Wild Rice Lake, checking cell phones and talking about fishing. But one word changed all of that.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

WILD RICE LAKE — One moment, the seven anglers were standing atop the bare ice of Wild Rice Lake, checking cell phones and talking about fishing. But one word changed all of that.

“Flag!” someone shouted.

The cry indicated that a tip-up flag had sprung up and a northern pike had swum away with a sucker minnow or a shiner in its jaws.

The race was on, as all seven anglers —six guys, one woman — raced for the tip-up.

This had happened several times on Rice Lake shortly after dawn on Tuesday morning. These anglers, mostly college students and others in their early 20s, had risen early to sample the lake’s northern pike fishing one more time before the weather turned cold.

Anglers across the Northland have been fishing in droves this winter, taking advantage of mild temperatures and easy traveling on the lakes. Snow has been minimal, so walking or four-wheeling onto the ice has been easy.

“This has been the best winter business I can remember,” said John Chalstrom of Chalstrom’s Bait and Tackle north of Duluth. “The weather is beautiful. The ice isn’t slushy. When it’s good conditions, everyone goes.”

And fishing has been decent.

“I’ve heard a lot of good reports,” said Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman’s Corner in Pike Lake. “On Fish Lake, they’re nailing northerns, and someone got a 27-inch walleye.”

Business is good.

“Ice-fishing is great,” said Russ Francisco of Marine General Supply. “Sales of ice tents, augers, rods and reels are up. It’s so easy to get on the ice, a lot of people are going who wouldn’t normally go.”

Unlike last winter, when slush persisted nearly all winter atop the ice, access has been easy. The young anglers on Wild Rice Lake early Tuesday had simply walked out on the mostly bare ice, pulling a couple of sleds full of gear.

They already had a crappie on the ice, and they were hoping for northern pike action.

“We’ve been out here four or five times before, at this same spot,” said Matt Prosek, 20, of Eau Claire, Wis. “The morning bite has been real good.”

“We’ve gotten two over 30 inches,” said Matt Stoltz of Stillwater, Minn.

They fished in 4 to 8 feet of water, using shiners and sucker minnows, suspended under tip-ups —14 in all. Tip-ups sit atop the ice, suspending live bait below.

While they were waiting for the next tip-up, the anglers stood in a cluster, chatting, checking cell phones and wrestling with Charlie, a golden retriever owned by Rachael Loso, a UMD student from Cold Spring, Minn. The conversation lasted only until the next time someone shouted “Flag!” And the well-insulated anglers took off at a high-speed clomp to check the triggered tip-up. They resembled a stampede of offensive linemen.

Stoltz and Prosek got to one of those flags first, and Prosek grabbed the line. He felt a steady pull and set the hook. Gradually, he gained on the fish.

“There he is,” Stoltz said, peering down the hole. “I saw him. He’s a good one.”

Someone else saw the northern through the clear ice, making another run.

Finally, Prosek coaxed the pike up through the foot-thick ice and out of the hole. Stoltz grabbed the fish, a 26-inch northern. After a couple of photos, they released the fish.

“We’re hoping for bigger ones,” Prosek explained.

The anglers re-baited with a fresh sucker minnow and dropped the line down the hole again. The group lingered at the hole and resumed their conversations. Much is made about young people not getting outdoors, or not taking up pursuits such as hunting and fishing. But this crew defied those claims.

“We’re trend-setters,” someone said.

They had all the right gear. They had risen early to catch the good bite. And they were having a good time on the ice. The morning bite, Stoltz said, runs from about 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

“Then you get into the dead zone,” he said.

The anglers chatted and hoped.

“I’m ready for a 40,” Prosek said, meaning a 40-inch northern pike.

Every northern pike angler is ready for a 40.

“They’re in here,” someone else said.

“Gotta be,” said another angler.

“Flag!” someone shouted.

The herd thundered off to a flag 20 yards distant. Brandon Huseby of Duluth took charge. He felt a lot of weight down below. He didn’t bother to set the hook. He just began hauling line. But in a split-second, all of the intensity drained out of his face.

“He broke the line!” Huseby said.

That was that. He brought up the line, a heavy ice-fishing line, which appeared to have been severed by something very sharp.

Stoltz looked at the line.

“That’s a big boy that shredded that line,” he said.

Who knows? It might have been a 40.