Dennis Anderson
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ON LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH – The surprise Saturday on the first day of Minnesota's inland walleye and northern pike season wasn't that the fish were or weren't biting. They're always biting somewhere, sometime for someone, a positive vibe that was the operative mojo of the late, great Jimmy Buffett, among other renowned anglers.

No, the rude awakening for the half-million or so walleye seekers who were afloat on the state's lakes and rivers Saturday was that the weather was so pleasant.

Here in northern Minnesota, on giant Lake Winnibigoshish ("Winnie"), when our group of 13 anglers vectored away in four boats from the docks in front of McArdle's Resort, the morning sun danced brightly onto mirror-flat water.

So quiet were the elements that we briefly considered double-checking our calendars to ensure the occasion wasn't Memorial Day weekend instead of the fishing opener.

But the opener it was, and in our boat, Steve Vilks, Joe Hermes, my wife, Jan, and I soon plopped baits overboard in 6 feet of water.

This was about 8:45 a.m. Saturday.

Maintaining an I'm-going-to-catch-one-soon attitude is especially vital in fishing. Without it, persistence — angling's lifeblood since the days of Moby Dick — can't be achieved.

So it was when we dropped our minnow-baited jigs overboard we figured only minutes would pass before we boated our first walleye, then a second and a third.

Instead, for what seemed like too long, we caught nothing.

"Why is this?" we asked.

Of course, we could only speculate.

We had thought the 53-degree water (later rising to 61) would have encouraged some numbers of Winnie's bountiful walleyes to remain in the shallows on this 11th of May.

Perhaps that was the case, or would have been, had the lake not been so glassy, we guessed, driving our targeted fish into deeper water.

Soon enough, after moving our boat into 10 feet of water, Steve put us on the board with a 16-inch keeper, likely a representative sample of the lake's 2019 year class.

By this time, the other three boats in our party also had scattered onto Winnie.

One carried Mark Strelnieks of Victoria, David Tomsche of Melrose, Minn., Tom Whitten of Glenwood City, Wis., and Terry Arnesen of Stillwater. Another harbored John and Jodi Weyrauch of Stillwater. And in the third were Tom Ellsworth, Jim McCaul and David Nielsen of the Twin Cities.

All of us had intended to stay at McArdle's Resort, but we had waited too long to reserve cabins. So instead, as we have in previous years, whether while fishing Upper Red, Cass or Winnie on the opener, we headquartered at Paradise Resort on Moose Lake, near Pennington — about a 25-minute drive from McArdle's.

Our goal, as always, was to secure enough walleyes for an evening feast, an achievement that, to date, over many years, we have accomplished without fail.

"Winnie" was as busy Saturday on the first day of the walleye season perhaps as it's ever been. Boats were lined up at launches early to be dropped into the big lake.
"Winnie" was as busy Saturday on the first day of the walleye season perhaps as it's ever been. Boats were lined up at launches early to be dropped into the big lake.

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

But by midmorning, we had only a couple of keeper walleyes in our live well, this while still patrolling depths ranging from 10 to about 12 feet.

Then, in the early afternoon, the weather gods blessed us again. The wind picked up, curling Winnie's glassy surface into a small chop that likely provided walleyes relief from the penetrating sun.

As that happened, we shifted to still another location on Winnie, dropping our baits variously into water 10 to about 15 feet, all the while dragging quarter-ounce jigs across the mostly sandy bottom.

Anglers in some other boats, we could see, were trolling sliding sinker rigs, and a few were casting slip bobbers. But except for using different colored jigs, our technique remained the same throughout: Impale a rainbow chub or fathead or, more preferably, a shiner onto a jig, and drag it slowly.

As expected, the shiners worked best, and soon Steve, of Naples, Fla., Jan and Joe, of Minneapolis, were stockpiling enough walleyes for dinner.

A few of these fish pushed the upper limits of the protected slot, measuring 22 inches and fractions more. It was fair enough, we figured, that these pudgy specimens were returned to the water, acknowledging, in part, the excellent job that Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers are doing on this big lake.

Winnie is nearly alone, after all, among Minnesota's hotshot walleye destinations to still be governed by a six-fish limit.

"There's another one!" Jan said in short order, with Joe soon echoing that exclamation, then Steve and me as we splashed a few more walleyes into our net.

On a Minnesota opener, you can experience faster action than we did Saturday. But you can't have a better day.

The sun shone from morning until late afternoon. The wind was manageable. The company was great. And at day's end, we had near-limits of walleyes in our boat, with plenty of eaters caught by our companions, as well.

So it went on the season's first day, 2024.

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