ON LEECH LAKE – The plan before dawn Saturday morning was to minimize the chance misery would reduce us to sniveling cabin dwellers on the state’s first day of fishing.
All day Friday the wind blew, howling still that night outside the windows of our cabins, which lay hard by the shores of this giant lake. Even the oldest and largest trees bent to the gale that gusted from the north-northwest, and at sunup Saturday the temperature was 27 degrees. All the clothes we could muster, that’s what we wore.
Each day in May when the fishing season opens, about 20 of us gather somewhere in the state to impale minnows on jigs or drag sliding sinker rigs over and around underwater rock piles. On paper, the object is to catch walleyes. More than that, proving we’re still up to the task is important, that and our Saturday night fish fry, a repast worthy of commoner and king alike.
So it was that most of our bunch arose Saturday nearer to 4 a.m. than 5, and shortly thereafter were watching exhausted gas rise in the cold dank netherworld that bridges night and day. John Weyrauch and Paul Kreutzfeldt, both of Stillwater, were on the dock of Big Rock Resort when I trudged toward them, each knowing, as I did, that a tempest awaited us just outside the resort’s safe harbor.
“Good morning,’’ I said, which, in turn, John and Paul repeated.
Now, quickly, we were in the thick of it. I was at the wheel, our craft pounding against foam-topped waves that rose and fell chaotically. Against the still-dark of early morning, our stern light burned bright white, while the forward beacon cast red to port and green to starboard. Into the maelstrom, the boat pitched and yawed, its lights appearing and disappearing as the craft crested steep waves before vanishing into cavernous troughs.
We took water over the bow, especially when we reached our fishing grounds and I turned abeam to the wind to cast a drift sock overboard. Appearing like a huge cloth funnel, the sock would slow our drift by providing drag to the boat, allowing us to present our jigs-and-shiners properly.
The wind whipsawed us, and to keep upright I knelt while retrieving or deploying the drift sock. Also, tying knots while the boat rocked required the hand and eye coordination of a surgeon. True believers, fools or both, we were convinced nonetheless we would catch fish.
Elsewhere on Leech Lake were others in our group, each also dressed more for winter fishing than summer. John Heroff and Larry Berndt were among these, also Steve Vilks and Joe Hermes, as well as Bob Kowalski, his wife, Gina, daughter Lisa and Lisa’s cousin John Portesan. Among us also were Jeff Knopps, Jeff Simons, his son, Nic, and Bryce Kothbauer.
In our boat, Weyrauch fooled the first walleye, a fish that arced his rod deeply, its tip pulsing against the heft of what appeared to be a weighty specimen. Paul reached for the net, and for the brief minute or so that followed all else in their lives was forgotten. Only this lake and this fish were important, and the singularity of purpose they offered.
“Looks like a keeper,’’ Paul said as he scooped the plump walleye from the water.
Leech Lake has a 20- to 26-inch protected slot. Measuring 19½ inches, John’s prize was live-well bound.
If fishing and fairy tales bore common destinies, the frequency of our hookups would have accelerated thereafter. They did not. Instead, we dragged jigs and sliding-sinker rigs downwind again and again, the drift sock slowing our passages, before Paul took a dandy walleye of his own. This was about 7 a.m. Saturday, and the measuring stick showed that Paul’s fish, at 22 inches, was too big to keep. Back to the lake it went.
I, too, would soon catch a walleye that fell within the confines of the 20- to 26-inch protected slot. This fish measured 23 inches, and anyone could be forgiven if, while sizing it up, they imagined its slab fillets in a frying pan. But alas, it wasn’t to be.
Overhead while we bobbed in the waves Saturday we saw gulls and cormorants and mallard ducks. Surely they saw us as well. Not just Paul, John and me. But John Heroff, Larry Berndt and others in their boat, who tagged seven keeper walleyes for the day. Steve Vilks and Joe Hermes also added fish to the pot by day’s end, as did John Portesan, Nic Simons and Bryce Kothbauer.
“We’re going to have a lot of walleyes to eat,’’ said John Weyrauch, our fish fryer in residence who by late Saturday was itching to put a match to a kettle of oil.
John also was reveling in the afterglow of a day’s angling in which he tagged into a muskie while jigging for walleyes, his first such big fish.
Sunday would be different altogether, the weather forecaster predicted, sunny and warm. Or, at least, warmer.
We’d take it.
But Saturday wasn’t bad. We had made it one more time.