Outdoors: Red Lake: From hard times to good times

Georgieann and Todd Mortenson (Photo by Ray Gildow)
Georgieann and Todd Mortenson (Photo by Ray Gildow)

By Ray Gildow

Contributing Writer

Todd and Georgieann Mortenson are no strangers to challenges on Red Lake, Minnesota’s largest – and one of its most important – walleye lakes. Todd grew up on the shores of Red Lake in Waskish. Georgieann’s parents were from the area, moved to Bloomington, where Georgieann was born, but she moved back to the area when she married Todd.   

Todd is a second-generation resort owner on Red Lake. The Mortenson’s resort, Mort’s Dock, is one of only five year-round resort operations on all of Upper Red Lake and was started by Todd’s mom and dad, Ingvald and Mabel, in 1969.  Todd and Georgieann bought the resort from Todd’s folks in 1995.  There are seven other resorts or businesses on Upper Red Lake that operate only during the ice fishing season and close down for the rest of the year.

1995 was a challenging year to start in the resort industry on Red Lake for Todd and Georgianne. The walleye fishery was collapsing due to tribal netting and overfishing. From 1995 to 1999 walleye fishing on Red Lake was tough. It was a hard time for resort owners to stay in business with the number of customers slowly dwindling. Northern pike fishing remained strong but did not attract the crowds of anglers that walleye fishing did.

Fishing got so bad in 1999 the DNR and the Red Lake tribal government made a landmark decision and closed Red Lake to walleye fishing for everyone. The walleye fishing on the lake had totally collapsed and the decision to close the lake was unprecedented in Minnesota history. That decision continued for seven years. 

A funny thing happened in 1999 when the walleye fishing closed. While the walleye numbers were rapidly decreasing, the crappie numbers were exploding. What had been a walleye mecca was now a crappie bonanza! Huge crappies were found all over Upper Red Lake. Crappie anglers came from five different states to get in on the winter crappie bite. It was a godsend for the resorts on Red Lake. It was the break they needed to keep going until the walleye populations came back.

By restocking the lake and allowing natural spawning to occur without fishing pressure the walleye populations came back during the seven-year closure. The crappie fishing slowed due to fishing pressure, but the timing was almost perfect for the rebirth of walleye fishing.

Today, the walleye fishing on Upper Red Lake is excellent. Anglers are allowed to fish 48,000 acres of the 108,000 acres that make up Red Lake. The rest of the lake is closed to tribal fishing only.

During the lean fishing years, Todd kept the resort business alive by working as an electrical contractor. Today, Todd serves on the lakes advisory board that determines catch limits.  

“We have an outstanding relationship between the tribe and the DNR and we now have a lake that is in great shape with large numbers of walleyes,” Todd said. “We went from real hard times to now, some of the best fishing on the lake ever.”

It is a remarkable success story. Not only for all anglers, but for those five resorts who had to survive some really hard times.