ON LEECH LAKE – A child of Mille Lacs, Steve Fellegy nonetheless was at home on this lake the other evening. A clear blue sky stretched from horizon to horizon and the slightest breeze riffled the lake’s surface. Nearby, a sailboat lay at anchor, while in another direction, wake-boarders went airborne. Others swam. Fellegy and I fished.
Nomadic as they need to be, people have forever hustled to stay ahead of the game. Plains Indians chased the buffalo; woodsmen, new stands of pine; computer jocks, the next big thing.
So it has been with Fellegy and walleyes.
“My guiding business on Mille Lacs dried up,’’ he said, impaling a red-tailed chub on a sliding-sinker rig. “My clients, like a lot of people who fish, wanted to catch walleyes and take some home for a meal. But on Mille Lacs, certainly by 2013, that wasn’t really possible. I had to be honest with them about that. That was the end.
“So I came to Leech.’’
A guide for more than 45 years, Fellegy got his start at his family’s resort on Mille Lacs. This was a half-century or so ago, and he and his brother, Joe, grew up piloting the resort’s three launches, toting groups of anglers onto the big lake, one after another.
Never busier, Fellegy would anchor, troll or drift the large wooden craft over schools of walleyes, bait 10 or more hooks and net boatloads of walleyes. This was before the advent of fancy fishing electronics, and Fellegy triangulated his position on the lake by reckoning shoreline landmarks.
Between trips — the launches were out and back twice a day — Fellegy cleaned walleyes, and fast.
“The customers wanted their fish to take home,’’ he said. “Then we washed down the boats and headed out again. It kept us moving.’’
Like thousands of others of a certain age, Fellegy and his brother over many decades formed a kinship with Mille Lacs that still courses their veins. Wave-tossed on some days, mirror-flat on others, the gargantuan lake and its odd, muddy subsurface plateaus, or flats, became a part of them, and they a part of it.
Mike and Dennis Schuett of St. Paul, expert Mille Lacs anglers each, were among this bunch, as were Terry McQuoid, brothers Leon and Leo Houle, Jerry Anderson and countless others, some equally well known; others less so.
Regardless, businesses in the area hummed: Boats were bought, gear was innovated, lives were changed.
Predictably, perhaps, competition was soon born that was intended to determine who was best at finding and catching walleyes. Not only on Mille Lacs, but on walleye waters nationwide.
Fellegy was in the middle of this, regionally and nationally. Twice he won the Professional Walleye Trail championship, in 1989 and 1993, and was a close also-ran many times on that circuit and others.
“At the peak of it, I was fishing tournaments from North Carolina to Nevada, Quebec to Alberta, and almost every walleye lake in between,’’ he said. “I did it for about 25 years, before quitting in 2008 to guide again full time on Mille Lacs.’’
Upon his return to guiding, Mille Lacs in no way resembled the lake he knew as a kid. Hamstrung by tight harvest slot limits and an overall declining walleye population, Fellegy on some days hovered atop the rock piles and mud flats that were his long-ago hot spots, only to gain hardly a bite.
A well-known critic of the lake’s comanagement by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and eight Chippewa bands, Fellegy is haunted by what once was, but is no longer.
So, last year, he came to Leech.
“I’ve fished Leech Lake in tournaments for over 20 years, so I felt I knew it well enough to do a good job guiding here,’’ he said.
‘Lot of big walleyes in Leech’
We were in Walker Bay, the two of us, and Fellegy was watching his vintage Genetron sonar unit, a TV-like contraption that is long since out of production but that clearly showed walleyes lurking below, near the bottom.
Lucky for me, the fish showed up on the screen. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have dropped a line.
“If I don’t see fish on the screen, I keep looking until I do,’’ Fellegy said. “Except in rare circumstances, if I can’t see them on this’’ — he pointed to the Genetron — “they’re not there.’’
Years ago, while pre-fishing a tournament on Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron, Fellegy didn’t bait a hook for four days.
“There was no need,’’ he said, “There were no fish on the screen. I couldn’t find them.’’
Then, lying in bed the night before the contest began, he sat bolt upright, exclaiming, “They ain’t got wings and they ain’t got shovels!’’
Immortal words they weren’t, perhaps. But they reminded Fellegy that the lake’s walleyes had to be somewhere and that sometimes walleyes suspend high in a column of deep water, escaping the sharp eye of sonar units when they do.
“So I switched tactics, and without seeing walleyes on the graf, I fished 5 feet down in 40 feet of water,’’ he said “That’s where the walleyes were! I won the tournament going away.’’
Whether those walleyes were as big as the first walleye Fellegy caught on Leech the other evening, and the first one I caught — both about 25 inches — is unknown.
What Fellegy and I did know was that these Leech-bred specimens were thick as a weightlifter’s forearm and head-shakers to the end.
Unharmed, the fish were released.
“There are a lot of big walleyes in Leech,’’ Fellegy said.
Fortunately, walleyes fewer than 20 inches long, and therefore legal to keep on Leech, also swim in the lake. We caught these, too, ending our evening in a fish cleaning house not far from downtown Walker, sharp knife drawn.
“Whether you fish in Walker Bay, the main lake or any of Leech’s big bays — Sucker, Steamboat or Boy — you can find walleyes,’’ Fellegy said.
“Just as it was when I fished tournaments here 20 years ago, Leech is still a great lake.’’
Editor’s note: Contact Steve Fellegy and other Leech Lake fishing guides at http://tinyurl.com/leech-guides.