A Day for the Ages

For the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, we planned on doing a little fishing.  It would be Wyatt’s, my seven year-old nephew, first fishing trip with me and I had set him up with his first post-Snoopy poles for the upcoming fishing season this Christmas; a Daiwa underspin combo for panfish and jigging and rigging walleyes and a Daiwa spincast combo for trolling and casting for walleye and pike.  It brought back memories of my own Zebco 202 and 404 combos back in the day when I was just a boy, fishing sunnies, crappies and pike with my dad and brother on Otter Lake, Lake Ripley and Lake Melissa.

The challenge would be to make fishing exciting enough to hold the imagination of a seven year-old who hasn’t grown up camping and fishing every weekend of the summer like I had the good fortune of doing.  Although there are some fantastic panfish lakes in the area, I was hoping to make an unforgettable impact with this first day out with me.  When Wyatt saw pictures from last year’s fall fishing on Leech Lake, he was amazed and asked if we were fishing on the ocean!  Weighing all the factors and the area fishing reports, it was clear the decision had to be Upper Red Lake.

We made the hour drive mid-day for an afternoon and evening of fishing, hoping that the ridiculously tremendous fishing reports from the big lake held true.  A southwest wind picked up along the drive, and by 2 o’clock the five of us, Wyatt, my sister, Val, my 71 year-old mother, Lorraine, Bill, and myself, piled into the Lund and headed up the Tamarack River to join the congregation of boats along the 5-7 foot breakline just outside the mouth of the river.  Now, the trick would be holding the boat in line with countless other fishermen, occasional three-foot rollers, five lines, and two novice fishermen.  Let the circus commence!

I say two novice fishermen because, even though my mother was usually right there with us back in the day of my boyhood summer fishing, at 71 she hasn’t fished much in recent years and some of that uncanny sense of usually putting the men to shame by catching the biggest fish of the day had diminished with age.  But when she showed up for the weekend with her tackle box, life jacket, and Abu Garcia combo I had given her for Mother’s Day a few years back, I knew she was ready for some fishing.

We tried a few drifts jigging with spottails and fatheads, but with the wind pushing us too fast to hold a spot for very long and the improbability of five lines negotiating a drift sock, I decided to have Bill deploy the anchor.  I should correct myself when I say five lines because for the first two hours of the afternoon there were only four lines cast from the boat.  Between assisting Wyatt, my mother, holding the boat in line, and netting the first few fish of the day, I didn’t bother pulling my rod from the locker.

After realizing the jigging technique was not going to work for Wyatt, I switched him over to a slip-bobber and helped him work on his casting – and watching.  As Wyatt reeled in his line for another cast, the third fish of the day, Wyatt’s first, hit the spottail at the end of his line.  I’m not sure he set the hook – or if he even had to – as I turned to look when he nonchalantly said “hey, I got one….”  One look at the little guy trying to crank the reel on the jerking, doubled-over rod at the back of the boat confirmed his guess.  He fought that fish like a seasoned veteran and put the biggest fish of the day to that point, a 23 inch walleye, in the boat.  With that fish I was left to believe that maybe this was going to work after all, and with Wyatt’s success on the slip-bobber I switched his grandma over to the same rig as well.

We put a couple more fish in the boat in that spot north of the river, but we were not setting the hook as frequently as those around us.  Plus the anchor was not holding in the face of the rollers, and a thunderhead was building behind the southwest winds and looked like it was heading straight for us.  So we pulled up the anchor and tried to move out of the way of the storm into a roomier spot south of the river.  The anchor held and with the boat secure and everyone versed in the catching of a walleye, I finally had a chance to get a line wet.

The catching started to pick up pace as the storm grew nearer and a parade of boats headed up the channel for the access.  Whether we were one of the handful of boats left with dangling bait or the intensity of the fish was hastened by the storm I’m not sure, but soon we couldn’t keep the eyes off of our hooks; doubles and triples ensued.  In fact, it now became a question of who was going to be able to get the net.  There was no real strategy to the fishing at this point as I was simply dropping my line directly over the side of the boat to the frenzied eyes below.  We probably should have joined the parade of boats headed for the safety of the access, but the fishing had turned into the kind of fishing you don’t see everyday, and only then with a great deal of luck.  We kept a close watch on the storm that ended up only just clipping us with a brief shower as it passed; behind it was warm sunshine and calmer seas.

By 6 PM we were running low on bait, the parade of boats – or the evening shift – had made their way back onto the lake, Wyatt was taking breaks between putting lunker picture fish in the boat by sticking his head over the side to splash water on his face, and I had long since lost count of how many fish we had hooked into!  A livewell count left us four slot-fish short of the Upper Red Lake three fish limit per angler, so we fished on until we ran out of bait.  In the end, we were reusing salvaged minnows from previous catches as the fishing – or catching – continued to be unstoppable.  When the salvaged minnows ran out, Bill and I switched to bare jigs with twister tails and still hooked up with hungry walleyes, though my mother wasn’t having the same luck with an inanimate gummy bear below her slip-bobber….

We wrapped up at 7 PM one shy of a limit of fresh slot-fish walleye to send home with my crew and an estimate of about 80-100 walleyes caught in less than five hours!  We rolled in back at the ranch before nightfall.  It was the best day the new boat had ever seen, one of the best fishing days ever, and I’m fortunate enough to have shared it with family and friends.  An amazing day of fishing and lifetime memories for all ages. First fish of the dayDandy WalleyeFishing's CoolI got him right in the lipMom and SonMom with a beautiful picture fishNephew and UncleNo one else had free hands self portraitSister and brother double (mines bigger)The only time for action photos were after they were in the boatWyatt finally held a fish

Views from Aiton Heights

Some of my family and friends are visiting for the holiday weekend.  Saturday, between bear burgers on the grill and bocce ball this afternoon and cheddar and wild rice brats, pizza, and peach pies over the bonfire this evening, we headed down to Itasca State Park for a hike to see the sights.  We made all of the usual stops in the park during an afternoon visit and I snapped a few views from the Aiton Heights Fire Tower as well.

North from Aiton Heights Fire Tower

East from Aiton Heights Fire Tower

South from Aiton Heights Fire Tower

West from Aiton Heights Fire Tower

Cold Water

Well, I’ve been to a few of my early season walleye hot spots on Big Turtle Lake and Lake Bemidji, but I am sorry to report that those spots seem to be following the same theme of being late this season.  The late ice-out have left lake temperatures cooler than usual for this time of year, and, as can be expected in the lakes with deeper water, the eyes have yet to turn on.

My fishing buddy, Zack, set the hook on the only cooperating walleye we found on Big Turtle, a nice 18 incher, using a jig and golden shiner.  Zack was one of the many anglers who fished Upper Red Lake for opener, and he returned with stories of an excellent opening weekend on the big lake.  On Big Turtle, we worked the honey hole, the sunken islands and the breaks around the peninsula and island, but it was an evening of fishing rather than catching.

On Bemidji, Jake and I worked nearly the entire western shoreline.  We also zig-zagged up and down the Diamond Bar and Flats and even made a shot in the dark at the Rock Pile.  We found two eyes along the west shoreline in about eight feet of water, a 19 and a 16, and one fiesty perch on the Rock Pile, with a fireball jig and spottail shiner.  We didn’t venture into Lake Irving which connects to Lake Bemidji via the Mississippi River, but early season reports from that smaller, shallower lake have been promising.

Lake Plantaganet just south of Bemidji has been producing some nice early season action.  Trapper Marshall, a friend of mine who lives on the lake, reported he had set the hook on his 99th walleye of the season fishing exclusively on Plantaganet.

Goggle Eyes

Upper Red Lake Triple

The opening week of the Minnesota fishing season also happened to be finals week for me.  While I finished up cramming for final exams and polishing off term papers, my good friend Paul Nistler and friends Curt and Todd headed north for the warmer waters of Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods.  That’s right, I said headed north for warmer water.

Although some of the larger lakes in Northern and Central Minnesota were finally shedding this year’s ice pack, the shallow waters of Upper Red Lake had been ice-free and warming nicely and in fact the walleye bite had been on fire since opener.  The guys stopped off at Red on Friday morning and anchored down near the mouth of the Tamarack River and soon found themselves in the midst of unbelieveable walleye fishing that included several triples.

At Lake of the Woods, the boys found more of the same kind of action.  By late Friday the winds had kicked up to gale force, but fishing Saturday in the shelter of Pine Island produced as well as anything to be expected at the walleye capital of the world.

LOTW 22LOTW 21

LOTW Sturgeon

Another Icy Opener Report

Walker Bay

I received this picture from a friend who was trying to fish Leech Lake on opening weekend.  This picture was taken on Mother’s Day, Sunday, and is of Walker Bay, the smaller and deeper side of legendary Leech Lake.  They were fishing in Shingobee Bay, which was open.

She also told me that apparently there were some anglers that had put in at Erickson’s Landing, near Kabekona Bay and north of Walker, on the Northwest side of the lake, and while they were out fishing the ice flow shifted and blocked the landing.  Supposedly they were able to negotiate to another landing and retrieve their vehicles and trailers from there, but it sounds like there was some scratch and dent, and gnarling of props….

I also spoke with another friend who owns a cabin at Huddle’s Resort on the Southeast side of Leech Lake, who told me he spent the weekend working on his boat because the entire south side of the main lake out to the north end of Pelican Island was still iced over.

Most of the fishermen I know from the Whipholt area skipped fishing on opening weekend, but a few did go around the ice flows to the north end of Bear Island, Sugar, and Battle Points where the cool waters left the walleyes a little sluggish and uncooperative.

The ice did finally go out from area lakes this week and the summer fishing season can begin in earnest.  I observed a dozen boats and pier fishermen on Lake Bemidji this afternoon between finals.  I didn’t see any fish caught during my brief observations today, but we’ll be an active participant this weekend instead of a casual observer.  Then we’ll have hard facts to report!