ON LAKE MILLE LACS — The evening campfire had not yet been lit, around which Larry and Griz and a half-dozen others would bask in the smoky glow of crackling wood, as they do most nights on the shore of this huge lake during the first two weeks of the fishing season.
The impression given by these gatherings is that of a vintage Mille Lacs logging camp, where tall pines were felled, and at day's end men talked big, their elbows bent with elixir in hand, while watching wood burn.
But Larry, Griz and the others aren't loggers. They're walleye fishermen, and in the last hour of fishing one evening last week, they remained spread across Mille Lacs, soon enough using sharp knives to excise fillets from kept fish, and lighting their fire.
In one boat were Griz and Larry, two of the world's best walleye anglers, with Mille Lacs coursing through their veins like blood.
But this spring, the big lake's countless suicidal walleyes are falling prey less to their skills, than to hunger.
The lake is short of baitfish.
"If you can't catch walleyes here right now, you can't catch them anytime," Griz said. "This happens every once in a while, when perch, which walleyes eat, have bad years, and the walleyes go looking for food. It's been good, really good."
Griz is Dick Grzywinski of St. Paul, and Larry is Larry Blaske of Sauk Rapids. One is tall, the other short. But common to them is a language of mud flats and break lines, also spinners, long leaders, crankbaits, line-counter reels and precision trolling -- the appurtenances of modern-day Mille Lacs walleye fishing.
"I spend the first two weeks of the season on this lake," Larry said. "The rest of the year, winter, too, I'm pretty much here four, five, six days a week. Except hunting season. Then I bow hunt. I'm retired, and my wife has the grandkids to keep her busy. I go home to check in one or two days a week. Otherwise I keep a trailer here, where I sleep, or I sleep in my fish house. I'm here."
A giant dish measuring 18 miles across, Mille Lacs' deepest point is only 42 feet. Formed by a sediment ridge deposited along a glacier's edge, the lake was once vastly larger than it is now. Always a walleye factory, its first shoreline inhabitants were the Sioux, who called the lake Mde Wakan, or Spirit Lake. About 1750, the Chippewa, using guns, overran the bow-and-arrow-armed Sioux in a bloody battle at Kathio, the Sioux village near where the Rum River drains Mille Lacs, leading to Anoka.
From that intersection, Griz and Larry fished on Mille Lacs to the northwest, at first in water about 24 feet deep, dragging minnows with beads and spinners, then shallower, in water 10 feet or less, pulling Shad Raps.
Both have fished Mille Lacs more than 50 years. But they met only about five years ago, bumping into each other at Terry's Boat Harbor on the west side of the lake, where each hangs out.
"When I was 10, in 1960, I caught a 34-pound northern on this lake," Larry said. "Griz has fished here a lot longer than that, and when we met, we just hit it off. Griz catches more fish than anyone I know, so he's good to fish with."
As Larry spoke, darkness congealed across Mille Lacs and cabin lights twinkled along shore. In the season's first weeks, boats must be off the lake by 10 p.m., in an attempt by the Department of Natural Resources to reduce the lake's early season harvest, instead spreading it over the summer, and next winter.
Whether that's possible this year is unknown, given the rate at which walleyes are being caught. If fishing is too good in May and early June, the lake's 17- to 28-inch protected walleye slot could be expanded as summer progresses.
Otherwise, anglers might exceed the 357,500-pound sportfishing quota negotiated by the DNR with eight Chippewa bands.
"In 2001, the DNR tightened the slot in midsummer to keep fishermen from going over the quota, and fishing on the lake just ended -- and everyone's business went with it," said Terry Thurmer, owner of Terry's Boat Harbor. "This year, except for one over 28 inches, only Mille Lacs walleyes under 17 inches can be kept, which is an inch less than last year.
"If the DNR expands the protected slot any more, no one will come."
• • •
Leaving a break line along the edge of a mud flat, where he and Griz had trailed long leaders and minnow rigs dressed with No. 3 Colorado spinners and green beads, Larry angles his boat into shallower water.
Now Griz watches his line counter closely as he sends a No. 5 Rapala exactly 113 feet behind the boat.
For a guy who dropped out of school to hunt and fish, and to help support his family, Griz is a numbers freak.
"Distance that crankbaits are back from a boat is important, and boat speed is important, too," he says. "I run at 1.9 miles an hour when using a No. 5 Shad Rap, and 2.5 miles an hour with using a No. 7. You've got to put the lure where the fish are."
As Griz speaks, Larry's rod arches deeply. This isn't a soft-mouthed walleye toying with his bait, but a whacking fish -- a walleye, to be sure -- hoping for a late-night dinner.
"That's a keeper," Larry says, and everyone has a limit.
On this night, warm and windless, Mille Lacs is hospitable in the manner of an old friend.
Decorating its surface, hither and yon, are other boats' white stern lights, and red and green bow lights.
Looking now for northern pike, Griz follows Larry's walleye with one of his own, which is released.
Just before 10, Larry pulls his boat alongside a dock at Terry's Boat Harbor, ending the day.
Soon, Griz, Larry and the others will excise fillets from walleyes, and put a match to a campfire. When they do, they'll give the impression of a vintage Mille Lacs logging camp, where tall pines were felled, and come nightfall, loggers talked big, their elbows bent with elixir in hand, watching wood burn.
But Griz, Larry and the others aren't loggers.
They're walleye fishermen, and this is the Mille Lacs they know.
Editor's note: Guide Dick (Griz) Grzywinski can be reached at 651-771-6231 or at Terry's Boat Harbor and Launch Service, 320-692-4430. Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org