The weather wasn't doing Jonny Petrowske any favors in his hunt for "Red Octobers."
That's his nickname for the submarine-sized northern pike that lurk in the depths of Upper Red Lake.
Owner of "Outdoors with Jonny P." guide service, Petrowske, 32, had watched the water temperature on Upper Red Lake fall from the high 60s to a chilly 54 degrees in less than a week.
For a fishing guide who specializes in trophy northern pike on a lake best known for its walleyes and crappies, the dreaded cold front and resulting downturn in water temperature was bad news.
The big fish would be sluggish, he predicted, caught up in a bad case of cold front blahs.
To complicate matters, several days of strong winds had churned the big lake from its classic reddish color to a chalky froth.
"It's amazing how the weather can turn this lake so fast," Petrowske said. "All I know is when it's chalky, the northerns don't go."
For those unfamiliar with fishing guide lingo, "don't go" means "don't bite."
There was a glimmer of hope on this Monday morning, though. The temperature was finally rebounding from the cold front that had arrived just in time for the weekend, and a fast-moving thunderstorm that dumped about a half-inch of rain might have been enough to clear the water and trigger the pike into feeding.
That's what Petrowske was hoping, at least. The big pike were out there, after all he'd landed a 43-inch "Red October" fishing by himself just four days earlier.
For a minute, he thought he'd beaten his personal best, a 44-inch Red Lake pike he caught several years ago.
Petrowske, like other anglers who target big fish, thrives on the challenge of northern pike. He classifies Red Lake's pike in three size categories: Snot Rockets, Torpedoes and, at the top of the food chain, the Red Octobers.
Besides, he says, walleyes on Upper Red come easy these days.
"To go out and catch trophy pike . . . it's kind of a hunt, I guess," Petrowske said. "Plus, any fish that can pull you overboard is just cool."
Petrowske says his passion for pike started as a boy, when he'd wade ditches that flowed into Upper Red Lake. Especially early in the season, some of those ditches held monster northerns.
"We'd wade around in waist-deep water," he said. "It was a blast. You'd see that fish coming, and you'd dig your feet in the sand and hold on."
Break in the weather
The thunderstorm passed, and Petrowske launched his 18-foot Crestliner at West Wind Resort; within minutes, Upper Red's seemingly endless expanse of open water loomed on the horizon.
The lake on this morning was mostly calm, the shoreline offering protection from the southeast wind.
This time of year, Petrowske says trolling is the best technique for locating pike. The fish are scattered and recovering from spawning, he says, and covering water is crucial.
Later, as the water warms up, he'll switch to casting. Years on the water have taught him that Upper Red pike don't relate to weeds the way they do on other lakes. Instead, Petrowske seeks out current and areas where cold water meets warmer water.
"This isn't a weed lake," Petrowske said. "It's a current lake and a temperature lake. Most people don't understand that."
The hunt begins
The "Hunt for Red October" on this morning started within sight of West Wind's harbor. Petrowske tied a large, orange crankbait called a "Muskie Snack" on one line and a minnow-colored Rapala "X-Rap" on the second line. The X-Rap is noisy and flashy, Petrowske says, a combination that he hoped would be enough to trigger a Red October into striking.
At the same time, the big baits would help deter the walleyes, which seem to be everywhere on Upper Red these days from biting.
After letting out about 100 feet of line, Petrowske took his seat in the "cockpit" at the stern of the boat and started slowly trolling along a break line where the water dropped from 2 feet to 6 feet.
The rod in the holder closest to shore buckled over within the first 10 minutes as whatever was down there slammed the Muskie Snack. The head-shaking tugs suggested a big pike, but the fish got off after a couple of turns on the reel.
"Take that rod out of the holder, put that thumb on the spool and just crack them" next time, Petrowske said, explaining the need for a good hook-set when fishing northern pike. "They've got some hard mouths."
The second pike hit barely five minutes later, and even with a good hook set, the fish shook free. Rearing back on the rod, I could literally feel the lure pull out of the fish's mouth.
Another opportunity wasted.
The troll-a-thon continued, as Petrowske changed up baits and cruised the break lines. As he predicted, the big pike were sluggish, and the two quick strikes would be the only action we'd encounter for the next hour.
That left time for conversation and watching other boats, most of which were targeting walleyes. Even on a Monday, a small flotilla was anchored off the mouth of the Tamarac River, which flows into Upper Red.
Most of them were fishing minnows below slip bobbers, and most of them were catching walleyes at will.
Coaxing a strike
The morning thunderstorm gave way to a rising temperature and hazy skies. Petrowske found the occasional pocket of warmer water.
He changed baits. He shifted his speeds from slow to fast to in-between. He tried different parts of the lake. He targeted sandy areas. He tried rocks. He trolled areas with both rocks and sand.
The efforts produced only a handful of small northerns and a half-dozen 18- to 19-inch walleyes that weren't afraid to attack crankbaits nearly half as large as they were.
"It's pretty amazing the walleyes will go after those big muskie baits like that," Petrowske said. "They've got big intentions."
The same couldn't be said for the pike, even when Petrowske resorted to talking to them.
"C'mon pikies, it's time," he said, hoping to coax a bite. "We're in areas where there should be fish. I'm marking them now and then, but they're not going. They've got cold feet."
After a couple of hours of mostly unproductive trolling, Petrowske decided it was time to shift gears and toss some jigs along a shallow shoreline area that was mostly devoid of boats and nowhere near the flotilla gathered near the mouth of the river.
"It's like an aluminum magnet at the mouth of the river," he joked.
Fishing an area that was rich with sandbars surrounded by 4- to 6-foot pockets of deeper water, we caught 18- to 20-inch walleyes with ease. Only one 15-incher was small enough to fall into the "keeper" category for the 17- to 26-inch protected slot on Upper Red.
The Red Octobers, though, would be elusive. Petrowske was flustered by the lock-jawed northerns, but he wasn't surprised.
"We didn't even get the big net wet today that's what's horrid," he said.
Call it one of the hazards in the "Hunt for Red October."