LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH – Whatever records might have been set this past long winter and never-ending spring were redoubled Saturday, on what was supposed to be the opening of the state’s fishing season.
Here on massive Winnibigoshish — Winnie — a sheet of ice inches and perhaps feet thick blanketed most of the lake. But along the shoreline that our group fished, hard by the lake’s Mississippi River outlet, gale-like winds pushed that sheet toward the middle of the lake and beyond, exposing water that overnight on Friday gathered itself into a sharp chop and, soon, whitecaps.
Into that breach early Saturday, our group of some 18 anglers guided a half-dozen or so craft. The hope was that a long day’s suffering in elements unfit even for a junkyard dog would be rewarded with live wells brimming with walleyes.
Or perch. Or crappies. Or, really, anything with fins we could filet and drop into a deep fryer come suppertime.
“The last time we opened the season here we all got limits,’’ Paul Kreutzfeldt recalled. “Maybe it’ll happen again.’’
But no matter our catch, this opener would be different, we knew that from the get-go.
The lake ice, for example, would pose a problem, as would the cold front that enveloped the state Friday, bringing with it winds that gusted to 30 miles per hour.
To combat the latter, soon upon motoring onto Winnie, occupants in each boat of our small flotilla tossed drift socks overboard, hoping to slow the rate at which their craft were cast downwind, and to slow, especially, the rate at which their jigs and minnows were dragged across the lake’s bottom.
Our hope was that we would catch walleyes staging near shore, preparing to spawn. This was theoretical, of course, as is most thinking about fish and fishing, because no one in Minnesota in recent memory has attempted to catch walleyes across such a wide range of the state so early in their spring-summer cycle.
By rights, these fish should have spawned weeks ago, prompted in part by lengthening days. But in many regions of Minnesota, lake and river water has remained too cold for eggs to survive.
So, naturally, fish have postponed spawning, while they lurk in parts unknown.
Thus every angler’s question Saturday: Just where in a given lake or river might pre-spawn walleyes be?
In deeper water, waiting for lakes to entirely clear themselves of ice?
In rivers that serve as lake inlets and outlets?
We weren’t sure. But we thought that by positioning ourselves at Winnie’s outlet, where our host resort, McArdle’s, is located, we might catch the fish either in the river or not far out into the lake.
But even if we found the fish, it’s well known that walleyes and many other fish that are spawning, or preparing to spawn, don’t eat. Wildlife photographer Bill Marchel of Brainerd proved as much Friday night at midnight when he and three friends wade-fished a north-central Minnesota lake whose shallows were crowded with walleyes.
But in a few hours’ time, the four anglers tricked only two fish into taking their baits.
So it was Saturday morning when John Heroff of Stillwater and I motored from the Mississippi River onto Winnie in my boat, our intention first was to find fish, using my boat’s electronics, then worry about catching them.
But all day long, that effort proved futile. Walleyes weren’t in the river, nor along Winnie’s shoreline.
In fact, the only walleye reported caught in the entire resort Saturday was by one of our crew, Sybil Crevier of Plymouth, who boated the fish on a jig and minnow in the Mississippi about halfway between Winnie and the Cass Lake Dam.
Thankfully, at suppertime, John Weyrauch, a rib-cooking master, produced a few slabs of well-cooked beef. Other fixings also were spread on a table that we gathered around.
But missing this year, and notably so, were walleyes, even the one Sybil caught, which at 25.5 inches was a half-inch too short of Winnie’s harvest slot to keep.
Credit us nonetheless with overcoming lake ice, a cold front and the day’s tempest-like squalls to continue the tradition of opening day.
Ever the optimists, like other anglers, we believe better conditions will prevail next year, and if not then, the year after.