UPPER RED LAKE, MINN. – The most important person working on the shores of this giant lake Saturday, the opening of walleye fishing, was Jordan Waldo, age 12.
As he did on last year’s opener, he ferried boat owners back and forth from the launch site employing a golf cart at West Wind Resort. It’s a necessary conveyance because so many anglers descend on Upper Red on opening weekend they have to park their pickups and trailers blocks away after dropping their watercraft into the lake.
It’s Jordan’s job to hustle these rod-and-reel-armed patrons back to their boats so they can join the thousands of anglers who are already on the lake trolling, jigging or bobber fishing for walleyes.
“Good to see you again, Jordan,’’ I said as he offered me a seat in his fantasy-hot-rod-for-a-day. “Hit it.’’
We were, in our party Saturday, a four-boat entourage. Some of us had fished Upper Red on the opener last year, when, beneath clear skies, we caught fish like we knew what we were doing.
Saturday, the one bugaboo that can spoil an otherwise great day on Upper Red reared its ugly head. Wind. At 48,000 acres, the lake has been known to kick up horizon-stretching whitecaps.
The forecast for this season’s first walleye day called for southerly breezes to bump 15 miles an hour, or even 20.
“We’ll have to see what it’s like out there,’’ said John Weyrauch of Stillwater who, along with his wife, Jodi, and my wife, Jan, fished in my boat.
One of 10 large Minnesota lakes that together yield about 40% of the state’s walleye harvest, Upper Red continues to amaze fisheries managers and anglers. Because of food shortages during World War I, the state opened the lake to commercial fishing, rights that were given to the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in 1929 (the band retains sole control over Lower Red Lake and part of Upper Red).
Flourishing for decades before declining, walleyes by the 1990s were nearly wiped out in both Red lakes due to overfishing by the band as well as sport anglers.
Restocked with millions of walleye fry in 1999, 2001 and 2003, the lakes have seen these fish rebound so much that Upper Red is arguably the best, or certainly one of the best, sportfishing walleye lakes in the state.
This year, in fact, the lake’s walleye limit has been made even more generous. Because the DNR believes there are too many breeding-age females in Upper Red, anglers can keep four walleyes under 20 inches or, alternatively, three under 20 inches, with one over.
“I’ve got one,’’ Jan said.
However warmish the morning was, in the 50s, headed for 60, the gusts were unrelenting, producing not so much a walleye chop as a walleye pounding.
In a net, this first walleye revealed itself to be 18 inches long and dreamily plump, with green-gold sides — the very fish hundreds of thousands of Minnesota anglers sought on Saturday.
Among these was Jeffrey LaFrance of St. Bonifacius, Minn., whose opening day on Upper Red served as a sort of christening for his new Lund boat, a model appropriately called a Wallinator.
On the water as well Saturday were Kory Kepple and his father-in-law. Ron Weinand, both of Albertville, who were off the lake by about noon with their eight-fish limit.
“Jig and a minnow,’’ Kory said. “We didn’t catch anything over 19 inches.’’
In our boat, Jodi followed Jan’s initial catch with a couple of good walleyes while fishing a slip bobber, our meal-ticket opening-day technique last year. Our other companions, meanwhile, Steve Vilks of Naples, Fla., and Joe Hermes of Minneapolis in one boat; Terry Arnesen of Stillwater and Jane Nygaard of Spicer in another; and Bob and Gina Kowalski of Shoreview and their daughter, Lisa, in still another were by early afternoon slinging walleyes into live wells at about the same pace we were, perhaps one every 15 or 20 minutes.
Hooking Minnesota’s state fish at an even faster clip was Aaron Hobbs of the Twin Cities. Afloat in a small cabin cruiser with his son, Erik, 3, and a young buddy, Graden Harms, 10, the elder Hobbs was regularly extracting walleyes from about 8 feet of water, with first mate Graden manning the net.
Steadfastness, in the end, is the foundation upon which successful angling is formed. Witness as one example Santiago, Hemingway’s protagonist angler in “The Old Man and the Sea,’’ who went 84 days without a marlin, his target fish, before finally hooking one.
Whether our bunch would have rocked so interminably on Upper Red to secure a walleye dinner or two is difficult to say. Fortunately, we didn’t have to.
Opting in the end to drag jigs and minnows on long lines while adrift in the lake’s rollers, we returned to shore at midafternoon Saturday with limits and near-limits of feisty and highly delectable walleyes. On land, I waved down my buddy, Jordan Waldo, and climbed into his fantasy-hot-rod-for-a-day.
“Hit it,’’ I said.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org