ON UPPER RED LAKE – Opening day was different this year on this walleye wonderland of a lake, but the difference wasn’t in the number of anglers who showed up eager to bait a hook with a minnow.
By all accounts, the flotilla of aluminum and fiberglass watercraft carrying bundled-up fishing hopefuls seemed every bit as large Saturday when Minnesota’s inland-waters season opened for walleyes and northern pike as it did a year ago.
The Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Tim Walz had encouraged anglers to stay fairly close to their homes Saturday, suggesting that destinations within a tankful of gas, return trips included, should be the outer limits of opening-day travels.
The request seemed odd to many. The governor’s goal, ultimately, given the coronavirus threat, is to encourage Minnesotans to space themselves out, even while on a dock, or in a boat, fishing.
Yet the largest aggregation of the state’s 1 million-plus anglers lives in the seven-county metro area, and having them all gather on piers and at boat launches in and near the Twin Cities seemed to many to be counterintuitive.
In addition, Minnesota is a walleye state, and its people almost preternaturally walleye anglers. And most of the state’s best walleye lakes are Up North. So perhaps it was to be expected on this opener, coronavirus or no coronavirus, that many Minnesota anglers would gather where the walleyes are.
Proof of which could be found Saturday in this number: 288.
That’s how many pickup-boat-and-trailer rigs were parked near and not so near to the public landing at Big Bog State Recreation Area on the shores of Upper Red Lake.
That figure, of course, doesn’t include the hundreds of boats that were launched Saturday at private accesses. One of these was at West Wind Resort, which, in an attempt to comply with social distancing and other good-citizenship norms, turned away scores of money-bearing anglers who wanted to set their watercraft afloat. The resort also limited its bait shop and fish-cleaning house to three anglers at a time, and offered takeout food only at its popular restaurant.
To a person, and without complaint, anglers complied.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said West Wind’s Kevin Waldo of the family-owned establishment. “We want to do the right thing by our staff, the people who live up here and our resort guests. But we also have bills to pay.”
My opening-day bunch is usually five boats strong, give or take. But this opener it was only my wife, Jan, and me in our boat, and friends John and Jodi Weyrauch of Stillwater in their boat.
The virus threat didn’t directly account for our group’s no-shows. But it didn’t help.
John and Jodi had driven up separately from Jan and me, and each of us arrived nonstop from the Twin Cities to Paradise Resort on Moose Lake near Pennington, about 45 minutes from Upper Red.
There, our clean cabins were waiting, payment for which was made over the phone by credit card. By resort policy this year, guests bring their own towels, and bedding is cleaned and sanitized by commercial cleaners.
“Our restaurant right now is open only for takeout, but we, like other northern Minnesota resorts, believe we can operate safely this summer and in the best interests of our guests, ourselves and our neighbors,” said Mary Smerling, who with her husband, Wade, owns Paradise Resort.
All of which, while important, is superfluous to Saturday’s main event: the fishing.
Which, while good, was short of the catch-them-as-fast-as-you-can action most anglers recorded here last year.
“Last opener I caught 67 walleyes in the morning alone,” one guy offered as Jan and I drifted by his boat.
The morning had broken clear and chilly, with a 28-degree temperature showing when we dropped our boat in the lake a little after 7 a.m. Saturday.
At 49 degrees, the lake temperature didn’t appear too ominous. But Upper Red contains considerably more water this year than it did on the 2019 opener, which suggested walleyes might not lurk in the same first-day spots they have in recent years.
Perhaps that was the case. Or perhaps the lake’s walleyes were simply tighter-lipped this opener, because they surrendered themselves more reluctantly to anglers’ baits than some might have expected.
The DNR again this summer allows four-walleye limits from Upper Red. But only one can be longer than 17 inches. Last year’s four-walleye bag, with one allowed longer than 20 inches, was far more generous, given that many of the lake’s walleyes lie in the 17-plus inch range.
In our group, Jodi had the hot hand, catching her four-fish limit mostly by drifting ever so slowly while dragging a fathead minnow on a bare hook, rigged with a sliding sinker.
Each of us caught our one walleye over 17 inches fairly easily. But the smaller samples came more slowly. Still, we had plenty of fillets Saturday for our annual opening evening fish fry.
As one fellow said Saturday as he pulled his boat from Upper Red: “It’s all fun. We’ll be back in the morning.”