ON LEECH LAKE – Walleye fishing Minnesota style was displayed here early Saturday as if staged for a Broadway production. Against a sliver of the day’s first light, a cruel northeast wind rolled across this big lake, seemingly heralding winter, not the coming summer. Snowmobile-clad anglers tossed drift socks overboard in attempts to hold their rollicking boats atop rocky points and shoals. And walleyes snapped, big ones especially, straining against anglers’ rods in the morning’s half-light while inhaling anything baited with minnows, jigs in particular, but also sliding-sinker rigs.
The third-largest lake contained wholly within Minnesota’s borders, Leech as a walleye destination has been up and down in the past decade or so. In the early 2000s, the lake’s bread-and-butter fish — walleyes — largely went missing, and no one knew exactly why. In the end, cormorants took some of the blame, as did a shortage of young fish.
Whatever the reason, and whatever role the Department of Natural Resources’ accelerated walleye stocking played in the lake’s rebound in recent years, anglers on Saturday seemed nonplussed. This, after all, was opening day. Outboards had been primed, reels spun with new line, and alarm clocks set to rattle anglers awake long before the sun crested the tall pines that encircle this northern Minnesota jewel.
In our cabin at Big Rock Resort, Jeff Knopps and I brewed a pot of coffee shortly after awakening but otherwise designated breakfast as a back-burner priority. The idea, long accepted, on the season’s first day is to bundle up as if intending to fish through ice, not water. Then, as quickly thereafter as possible, the spark of an outboard should be advanced to the point of fuel combustion and a boat, fancy or plain, big or small, should be piloted to a designated lake or river location — the fabled “hot spot’’ of walleye fishing lore.
For Jeff and me, and hundreds like us, Stoney Point and the waters just off it were that hot spot.
Two of our group, Steve Vilks and Joe Hermes, were already on site when Jeff and I arrived, Joe dragging a spinner-and-bead-laden Lindy Rig, while Steve opted for a minnow and jig.
Amid the din of the morning’s blustery wind, Steve employed sign language universally understood by anglers to signal us from afar how things were going.
Bracing himself in his bobbing Ranger, he held his hands about 18 inches apart, careful as he did not to include nearby anglers in this super-secret maritime signaling.
Seeing this, Jeff and I nodded in the manner of big league pitchers taking signals. Then we impaled shiner minnows on quarter-ounce jigs and dropped the rigs to the bottom.
This was in about 12 feet of water. The air temperature was in the high 30s. The water was about 10 degrees warmer.
Overhead, steel gray clouds — so undesirable at picnics, graduations and outdoor weddings — smothered the scene like gravy.
Just as it should be.
Welcome to Minnesota on the opener.
• • •
A detective by profession, Jeff guards his walleye hook-ups like evidence.
But the bend in his rod couldn’t conceal he had a fish on, and a good one. This was within 10 minutes of our arrival at Stoney Point.
Reaching for the net, I peered into the lake’s foamy top, awaiting a glimpse of the day’s first trophy. If it were a walleye, I figured, it might not be destined for a frying pan. Leech is regulated by a 20-26-inch protected walleye slot, and the heft of this specimen, telltale by the depths it was keeping long into its struggle, indicated it would tip the tape somewhere in the guarded range.
Still, the sight of this first walleye when it finally appeared, with its painted-white tail tip and green-gold sides, was reward enough, and Jeff dislodged the jig from the fish’s lip, freeing it to swim again.
We weren’t the only ones counting coup, as it were. Everywhere around us, it seemed, someone in a boat was fighting a fish, while someone else was going for a net.
In many cases, as with Jeff’s first fish, walleyes that were caught were too big and were released.
But eating-size fish were caught as well, including some walleyes in the 16- to 18-inch range. At other times, northern pike were taking baits with vicious strikes — hungry, it seemed, after a long winter passed beneath thick ice.
• • •
As storied as any Minnesota lake, Leech has a fishing tale all its own to tell.
In just a few days during July 1955, the lake’s muskies went on an eating rampage the likes of which hadn’t been seen before and haven’t since. When it ended, more than 100 muskies had been caught — this at a point in time when these valuable fish weren’t released, as they often are now.
Instead, they were caught and killed, sometimes only so they could be photographed.
So newsworthy was Leech’s muskie binge that WCCO Radio broadcast daily updates of catches, which in the end numbered more than 100.
A massive storm swept over the lake July 23, 1955, ending the rampage, and returning muskie fishing to normal.
Doubtless, a similar slaying of big walleyes would have occurred Saturday morning on Leech Lake, were it not for advancements in fisheries science, fisheries management and angler awareness.
About 20 of us are in our opening-weekend group this year, and most who put time in a boat Saturday either caught perch, northerns or walleyes — the latter, in most cases, too big to keep.
Maybe it’s a sign the apocalypse isn’t so near, after all, that we were fine with that.
At day’s end, we had enough fish to fry.
The rest we’ll catch again another day.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org