TOWER, Minn. – Jay Schelde, born and raised around Lake Vermilion, said Saturday was the best all-around opening day of fishing that he can recall.
The weather drew in a large crowd and the walleyes didn’t suffer from stage fright.
“Everybody seems to be catching stuff, which is phenomenal, and the weather is never this good,’’ said Schelde, owner of Pike Bay Lodge near Tower. “It’s the nicest opener by far.’’
Any place you looked on Pike Bay on Saturday, there were 40 to 50 boats in plain view. At times, the distance between boats was so narrow and the banter among anglers was so lively that the lake carried the vibe of a crowded restaurant.
“You look out across the lake and the boats are like poppy seeds on a bun,’’ said Chris Ward of South St. Paul.
“The social aspect is better than the fishing, and the fishing is pretty good,’’ said Scott Ward, Chris’s father.
With the shallow bay clouded during the morning hours and temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, people were bundled up. But many were warmed by the pace of fishing.
Starting as early as 5:30 a.m., with more than a hint of sunlight on the water, anglers were trolling around the bay. Some were pulling crankbaits, others were dragging sliding sinker rigs while others dangled heavy, spinning-blade leaders tipped with minnows or leeches.
As the morning wore on, the trolling boats had to meander between clusters of pontoons and other vessels anchored in hot spots where the walleyes were biting on jigs and minnows.
That was the scene all around Whiskey Island, where my 9-year-old son, Joe, tried his luck with a flame-colored jig and lively, rainbow minnow.
“Dad, I got one!’’ he chirped.
Two seconds later, the walleye was at the surface, flashing its gold scales and shaking loose just a moment before it was in the net. It was still early in the day and dinner-sized fish already were in the live well thanks to Scott, our boat captain.
Our group of four was too busy to regret a few missed chances here and there. Besides, visual entertainment was streaming at us from all directions. In one nearby boat, a man drank four beers in businessike fashion before 10 a.m., never cracking a smile. In another boat, a good-natured “peanut gallery’’ made fun of their neighbors when anyone lost a fish or snagged on a rock.
Moving on to another area in Pike Bay, the fishing and people-watching only improved. Hoodoo Point, a peninsula with a campground, was crawling with anglers who fished from shore. Radios blared, dogs barked, kids frolicked and laughter wafted through the air.
Lake Vermilion has a protected slot limit requiring anglers to immediately return to the water any walleyes 20 to 26 inches in length. One shore angler on Hoodoo held up a string of three walleyes that must have been close to 20 inches long. Another man drew applause when he landed what could have been a 25-incher. After snapping photos of it, he knelt on the rocky shoreline to ease it back into the water.
Scott positioned our boat offshore from where the big walleye was caught. We were in 5 to 7 feet of water, the same depth we had fished at Whiskey Island. In four hours of morning fishing, the biggest walleye we had caught was 18 inches. We were happy and ready to break for lunch.
Just then, I felt a nibble. Maybe a perch, I thought. I was fishing with a minnow on a bare hook, weighted with a single, split-shot sinker. I let out some slack, then tightened the line. Now it was heavy. I set the hook and told Joe to get the net. He strained to lift the fish over the stern of the boat and soon we were taking pictures of a fat, 23-inch walleye.
Jim Essig, the Tower area supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources, had warned us on Friday that we would encounter lots of other anglers on Pike Bay for the opener. He didn’t offer much in the way of fishing advice, but all you had to do was follow the crowd.