LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH — Minnesota fishing-license sales last week were down more than 20% from a year ago, according to the Department of Natural Resources. But busy roads leading north from the Twin Cities on Friday indicated that boats aplenty would be on the water Saturday morning, when the state's inland angling season began.
That proved to be the case on this 59,000-acre northern Minnesota gem.
As the sun crested the eastern horizon Saturday morning, brightening the red and white pines on the far shores of "Winnie,'' the expansive docks in front of McArdle's Resort, where our group headquartered, were filled starboard to port with virtually every make and manner of walleye-seeking craft.
Some boats were fancy, others not so much. Regardless, each, as daylight gathered, motored slowly onto "Winnie'' before rising on plane, their pilots and passengers alike hoping that nervous minnows impaled on kaleidoscopic jigs would trick walleyes into biting.
My first walleye took the bait within a handful of minutes of dropping a line into Winnie's 48-degree water.
Steve Vilks of Naples, Fla., Joe Hermes of Minneapolis and my wife Jan and I were fishing together, each of us dragging, jigging or otherwise fiddling with 1/8-ounce jigs rigged with rainbow chubs in 10 feet of water.
That initial walleye, a 14-incher, went into our live well, the first of what we hoped would be enough bounty at day's end for our annual opening-evening feast.
"It's a start,'' Steve said.
Weather-wise, the morning was about as good as we could hope for, given the Armageddon-like conditions that prevailed statewide Wednesday and Thursday nights. The temperature Saturday at 6:30 a.m. was in the high 40s, with calm-to-nonexistent winds.
Given how quickly we put that first walleye in the boat, Winnie, we thought, might give up her treasures as readily as she did a year ago on the opener, when we also fished out of McArdle's, and the action was fast.
But Saturday, early, was a horse of a different color, as it were. We caught, collectively, a live well full walleyes (the limit on Winnie is six), including three that were 24 inches or longer (the protected slot on Winnie is 18 to 23 inches). But the pace of the catching left plenty of time for chit-chatting about world affairs — about which, fortunately, none of us held any particular expertise, making solutions a snap to develop.
Throughout the morning, a flotilla of about 50 boats surrounded us, three of which carried others in our group, including John and Jodi Weyrauch of Stillwater; Terry Arnesen and Denny Lien of Stillwater and Lake Elmo respectively; and Tom Ellsworth of Excelsior and Jim McCaul of Mound.
Joe, in our boat, was the first among us to smack a big walleye, a 24-incher that properly christened a sleek Fenwick graphite rod he had recently purchased. Fun as little fish are, big fish are funner, as the kids say, and Joe's hefty walleye brightened our prospects for a productive big-fish morning.
"He didn't hit my bait hard,'' Joe said. "He just picked it up. Then he was there.''
Hours passed, and walleyes fell to our baits intermittently, among them a 24-incher I wrestled to the boat and a 25-incher Steve caught. The latter was taken later in the afternoon when the wind — and walleye action — picked up considerably.
Perch, meanwhile, many of them plump, sought us out, kamikaze-like, all day. Fillets of these bulbous fish (and they were fat) are as tasty as those of any fin-bearing critter, and we retained enough of them to ensure our Saturday evening repast was sufficiently supplied.
Jan, my wife, given her druthers, prefers casting to trout to jigging for walleyes. Still, she's happy to make these seasonal debuts, the first one of which she attended in 1992, on White Iron Lake near Ely, during which we were married. That these three decades, two sons, countless dogs and horses later we're still together and still trying to put a few fish in a boat is a bonus, particularly for me.
Saturday ended for us as it did for thousands of other anglers in Minnesota: with a flame beneath a deep fryer and fillets of Minnesota's most desired fish browned to perfection.
Surrounded by friends.
Tribute for resort owner
Craig Brown died earlier this year in a vehicle accident in Idaho while on an ice-fishing trip. With his wife Paige, Craig, who was widely admired and universally well-liked, owned and operated McArdle's. The resort's 23 cabins are full for the opener, and Friday evening at 9, everyone at the resort — guests, employees, and family — gathered with Paige to honor Craig and to encourage her, her sons Matt and Nate and their families as they forge ahead.