A parade of anglers began arriving on the frozen lake long before dawn on Jan. 14, preparing icehouses and drilling holes so they’d be ready to drop their lures at exactly 6:49 a.m.
When the time came, hundreds of anglers occupied Chaska’s Courthouse Lake, a 10-acre fishing hole nestled behind the Carver County Government Center, for the opening day of winter trout season.
Chris Toll, of Minneapolis, left home around 4:30 a.m. to set up camp with three high school friends. For the last five years, the group has made an annual pilgrimage to the converted clay pit to catch rainbow trout and brown trout stocked by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
A friendly neighbor helped them drill fishing holes when their gas-powered auger refused to start before sunrise. Toll pulled pieces of cooked shrimp from the inside flap of his wool cap and secured it to his line, touting the bait as his secret to success.
“They eat anything sweet or with an attractive smell,” said Toll, 25, who learned to fish with his grandparents on Lake of the Woods.
He wore the same outfit as he did in 2015 — a heavy red flannel shirt and dark corduroy pants — when he caught a hefty trout during the opener. As the morning wore on, his friends sipped on coffee or bloody mary’s as they awaited strikes. They yanked up two sunnies but threw them back. It was trout or bust this Saturday.
Around the lake, space heaters warmed ice shelters, while beer warmed bodies. Fellow anglers dissected the world’s problems while enjoying a calm morning in nature. Catching dinner would be nice, but it was really all about the experience.
Some men brought along their young sons for the first time, passing on the Minnesota tradition.
“You have to,” said Toll’s friend, Ryan Blake. “They ain’t gonna be watching TV.”
“Or playing on an iPad,” Toll nodded, though neither he nor Blake have children of their own.
DNR conservation officers reported a slower opener than usual, but still counted about 250 fish houses on the tiny lake. Daryl Ellison, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR office in Shakopee, said the area remains a draw because it has the most trout per acre — 3,000.
“They have better luck,” said Ellison, adding that most were caught on the north end of the lake, away from the shoals of anglers.
Quarry Lake, a new fishing hole at a former gravel pit in Shakopee, also opened Jan. 14. Though only 44 icehouses set up shop there, the DNR expects it to take pressure off the fish in Courthouse Lake in coming years. Trout season runs until March 31.
After scant bites (and no trout), Toll and his friends moved on.
No more than 50 yards away, Jason Rognrud and four of his friends had better luck. The event has become an annual tradition, and the five men caught 13 trout between them on this opener — their best haul in five years.
“It’s a party for two hours in the morning,” Rognrud said.
Just after 9 a.m., the men broke down their shanties and divvied up the fish. Their wives were calling, and it was time to return home.
“It’s an escape,” said Ryan Bjorngaard, of Maple Grove, tugging on a Coors Light.