– By Mille Lacs standards, Saturday’s opening day crowd of walleye anglers was sparse.

But for those who weren’t turned off by the state’s new season-long catch-and-release mandate for the big lake, the fish were plentiful.

“It seemed really strong,” said Shawn Gallery, the top fishing guide at Red Door Resort and Motel on the north side. “We caught 16 walleyes in our first hour.”

The steady bite, obvious to many other anglers in a pod of about 30 boats near the resort’s shoreline, lived up to the expectations set during a vaunted season of ice fishing. As the DNR has said many times, even though young walleyes on Mille Lacs are having trouble surviving, older classes of fish are still healthy and in good supply.

Beginning at dawn Saturday, the Red Door’s boat launch was one of the busiest on the lake because a stiff northwest wind churned much of the rest of Mille Lacs into turbulent waves. But even with its favorable location, the resort attracted less than half the fishing traffic that it enjoyed at last year’s opener, said Steve Kulifaj, owner of the Red Door.

“It’s the first time in our history that we didn’t sell out, with people on waiting lists,” Kulifaj said. “Considering we have the majority of the business on the lake today, it’s pretty dismal in terms of turnout.”

Attendance wasn’t helped by the weather, including early overcast skies and morning temps that hovered just above freezing. Friday night in Isle, on the south end of the lake, there had been occasional snow flurries. Anglers were wearing snowmobile suits, facemasks and heavy gloves. Conditions improved after 1 p.m. with the arrival of the sun, but winds continued to gust at more than 15 miles per hour.

“People are pleased with the bite,” Kulifaj said. “The bite has been good.”

The boat holding my lifelong friend Scott Ward and me was one of only nine fishing within sight along Mille Lacs’ north shore starting at 7 a.m. By 1 p.m., the number of boats increased to about 30, many holding at least a trio of anglers.

Nibbles came early and we missed a couple of bites as we dragged jigs and big shiner minnows along the bottom of the lake in depths ranging from 15 to 22 feet. At 8:30 a.m., I finally hooked one of the nibblers, reeling in a plump 18-inch walleye.

The cold front that arrived in the Mille Lacs area at midweek had a lot of anglers nervous. Gallery said he couldn’t wait until the sun came out to test the waters, so he launched at midnight and trolled in shallow north shore waters with small crankbaits.

His group caught 16 walleyes in one hour, including a 25-inch heavyweight.

Our own boat, unguided but coached by McQuoid’s Inn fishing guide Mike Verdeja, worked back and forth along the north shore at a slow pace.

The second nice walleye hit hard about an hour after the first. It measured 17½ inches, possibly a member of the 2012 class of Mille Lacs walleyes.

The 2013 walleye class is by far the largest in Mille Lacs, but neither Scott nor I hooked one.

But we did land another 17- to 18-inch walleye and just missed on a fourth before 11:30 a.m.