Walter Cooper is proof that you don't have to drive for hours or fly to a remote Canadian lake to find good fishing.

Sometimes it's right in your backyard.

Last week, Cooper, 53, of Minneapolis, landed a fish of a lifetime -- a 28 1/2-inch walleye -- in the heart of Minneapolis.

"I caught it on Lake Nokomis," Cooper said. "It's about 10 minutes from home." The same day he also caught a 24 1/2-inch walleye and four 15-inchers.

Cooper is among a legion of metro-area anglers who, by choice or circumstance, fish Twin Cities lakes. The numerous lakes, rivers and fishing ponds offer anglers spectacular fishing opportunities for a metro region.

"Of all the metro areas nationwide, this has got to be on the very short list of places where you can go very close to home for high-quality fishing experiences," said Dirk Peterson, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries supervisor.

Cooper is a believer.

"People have good fishing right in their backyard and just don't know it," he said. "They think there's nothing in there, or it's all fished out."

A diehard angler

But with the price of gas nearing $4 a gallon, Cooper said more residents might consider wetting a line in metro waters. You can often find him, sometimes accompanied by his wife, Barbara, fishing some metro lake.

"Nokomis is my favorite," he said. "It's so clean and nice and close to home. I'm there at least three days a week."

Other favorites include Harriet and Minnetonka. He doesn't have a boat, so he fishes from shore.

"Nokomis is a wonderful lake to shoreline fish," he said. "I have a couple of spots that are my favorite. When you don't have a boat or a fish-finder, you hope and pray you're in the right spot at the right time. Right now the bite is pretty good."

Cooper grew up in Illinois, where he fished the Kankakee River. He has lived in Minneapolis for 13 years. "I've been fishing all my life," he said. "I love to fish -- it's my passion.

"It's not all about catching fish for me. It's just being out. And the peace and serenity of it. That's what I really like."

Cooper said the metro lakes are underappreciated. And some anglers don't know how to fish them.

"My philosophy is that with all this water there has to be some big fish in there. And with metro lakes, they're not posted ... you can go anywhere on the lake you want. If you try one spot and they don't bite, pack up and move to another spot until you find them. And once you find them, you might catch the fish of a lifetime, like I did."

He said few anglers fish for walleyes at Nokomis "because a lot of time they don't understand the structure of the lake. It's like a big bowl. It drops off between 9 and 12 feet. I think most who come fish for crappies."

But he proved that might be a mistake.

Landing the big one

Cooper was fishing for walleyes on Nokomis with a shiner minnow and slip bobber last week.

"When I set the hook, I first thought it was a bullhead. Sometimes you have to weed through the bullheads to get to the walleyes. But then I felt the weight, and I said, 'This ain't no bullhead.'

"It began to run, and my drag was crying out, and I thought maybe I had a small muskie. I got nervous because I knew it was something nice. Then I got it 6 to 8 feet from shore and said, 'Oh my God, it's a walleye.' I was in disbelief.

"I didn't have a net, so I had to walk into the water. I got my hands under it and flipped it on shore. I couldn't believe it. It was the biggest walleye I've ever caught."

It measured 28 1/2 inches.

"You only see people catch walleyes that big on TV," he said.

To his wife's astonishment, he told her he was going to release the fish.

"I tried to explain to her that a fish this size you don't want to eat. You want to let it go so it can reproduce and someone else can catch it. Someone else can be made a believer. So we let it go."

He also released the 24 1/2-inch walleye he caught but kept the four 15-inchers to eat.

"Those are perfect eatin' size," he said. "If it's between 15 and 17 inches, I'll keep it to eat, but anything smaller or bigger I put back in the lake."

For Cooper, the big walleye was the result of lots of patience.

"You just have to be in the right place at the right time. I was really shocked to catch one that big. I'm still in disbelief. But I've been fishing that lake and fishing that lake and I knew they were in there.

"Now I've made a believer out of a lot of people. I'm still excited about it."