LEECH LAKE — Armed with minnows, jigs and high hopes, we motored across a choppy Leech Lake at dawn Saturday, seeking walleyes and buoyed by an early spring that suggested it would be a Minnesota opener to remember.
We joined scads of other anglers -- optimists all -- drifting in an armada of boats off Leech's many scenic points and rock piles.
I could report we caught feisty walleyes by the boatload, and that some later sizzled golden brown in a fry pan.
But I'd be lying.
Instead, the walleyes were mostly missing in action for many anglers on Leech, including our group of four. By lunchtime, we had landed one 3-pound northern, and nary a walleye or perch.
But we weren't alone.
We counted nearly 50 boats off one point, and saw only one walleye netted. Most anglers we talked to offered similar reports.
Greg Clark, a fishing guide who lives on Leech and fished by himself Saturday, summed up his morning:
"It has not been good. I caught one walleye in the protected slot, and had two bites.''
Gary Sommers, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, said few boats he checked had walleyes.
"Most everyone has zero or one,'' he said around 1:30 p.m. "Overall, it's been pretty slow.''
Even the locals were struggling to find walleyes, he said.
"It's fishing; some days they bite and some days they don't.''
Clark said the early ice-out didn't translate into good mid-May fishing action, as some had expected.
"I think we're a week behind where we think we are,'' he said. "By next weekend and Memorial Day weekend, it will be very good.''
The best report came from Tom Neustrom, a guide from Grand Rapids who said he and another angler caught 25 to 30 walleyes and perch on Leech, mostly in sand-grass flats in8 to 10 feet of water.
"It hasn't been fast, but we've had pretty good luck,'' he said at 3 p.m. Saturday.
We motored from Huddle's Resort at 6:45 a.m. and were greeted by a fine "walleye chop." We fished off Pelican Island, where thousands of cormorants, pelicans and gulls hang out. The cormorants, of course, are persona non grata. Since 2005, federal sharpshooters have killed 2,000 to 3,000 yearly, aiming to keep the population to 500 breeding pairs.
Flocks of cormorants sailed overhead while we fished with a dozen other boats. Temperatures were in the 40s under an azure sky but soon warmed to the 60s.
"This is pretty nice for the opener,'' said fishing partner Jack Rendulich of Duluth. "It could have been snowing.''
We tried various colors of jigs, at various depths -- and caught nothing.
Still, all the evidence says fishing on Leech this season should be good.
"The fishing has been really tremendous the last four years,'' Doug Schultz, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Walker, said earlier. "People are excited.''
The past five years, the DNR's fall gill net sampling of walleyes has been above average. "All in all, the fishery is in excellent shape,'' he said.
There is an abundance of strong "year classes'' of walleyes ranging from 8 to 17 inches. Schultz is bullish on the 2012 season.
"I think it's going to be really good,'' he said.
Ten years ago, Leech Lake's famed walleye fishery was in trouble. Production was poor. Fish were hard to come by. Anglers went elsewhere. Businesses were distraught.
Some blamed the infusion on fish-eating cormorants. Others said walleye production needed a boost.
Several changes occurred in 2005:
• Federal sharpshooters began culling cormorants.
• The DNR began a program to intensively stock walleye fry, alternating between 7.5 million and 22 million yearly.
• And the DNR instituted an 18- to 26-inch protected slot, with one fish over 26 inches allowed in a reduced four-fish limit.
"We threw everything we could at the issue, and it worked,'' Schultz said. But because of those three variables, officials aren't sure which factor, or combination of factors, helped boost walleye numbers.
Anglers show up
Landings were crowded Saturday. Still, it's not like the "old days." Schultz said fishing pressure totaled about 700,000 hours last summer. "In the 1990s, it was at 1 million hours,'' he said.
But based on the number of boats still on the lake Saturday afternoon, anglers weren't discouraged by Saturday's inaction.
For anglers, ever optimists, there's always tomorrow.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org