As the July 4th weekend approaches, walleye anglers worry that the days of easy pickings are over. Throughout May and early June, a jig tossed into 8 feet of water tipped with a minnow could put a dinner's worth of Minnesota's iconic finned species into a boat. More finicky now, and tighter-lipped, walleyes in midsummer often play hard to get, and never more so than on Independence Day, when boat traffic and bottle rockets disturb the peace, even of fish.
Yet as Martin Luther observed, "Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.'' So too it is with fishing. Otherwise, you might as well sell the boat, and the rod and reel, too.
Still, on that July 4th long ago — in 1989 — Robert "Bob'' Bruininks was not particularly hopeful of catching a walleye. Smallmouth bass, yes, he might hook one or more of those, he thought, as he sat adrift in his small boat on Loon Lake off the Gunflint Trail, rigged with a spinner-adorned No. 6 hook and a leech.
"I had a couple of young guys with me who had graduated from Dartmouth with Todd, our oldest son,'' Bruininks said. "They didn't know anything about fishing. But I thought we might have some luck, at least with bass.''
In 2002, Bruininks would be appointed president of the University of Minnesota, a position he held until 2011. A distinguished administrator, as he was a professor at the U, his tenure as the school's kingpin was marked by multiple triumphs.
Yet among some Minnesota walleye anglers, those accomplishments are considered mere footnotes to what Bruininks achieved on Loon Lake on that warm, sunny, windless July 4, 1989.
"At first, I thought I had a snag,'' he recalled. "Then the snag started to move.''
A Michigan native, Bruininks as a young man was a wilderness guide for the Detroit YMCA. Enrollees in his charge were initially boot-camped on short excursions, before being bused to the Ontario wilds for two weeks of paddling and bushwhacking through intemperate country.
"I was 20 years old and from that experience I learned to love what is broadly known as Quetico-Superior country,'' Bruininks said.
So it was in 1968 after Bruininks accepted a teaching job at the U, he moved to Minnesota. Nearly simultaneously, he motored to Duluth, then to Grand Marais and beyond, to the Gunflint Trail, to lay claim to his own piece of the North Woods.
"I found a lot on Loon Lake with no road to it,'' he said. "I had a 12-foot boat, and I used it to transport everything I needed to build a cabin.''
Originally a three-season footpath and winter snow corridor over which Native Americans mushed their dog teams, the 57-mile Gunflint Trail has been paved since 1979. It gained timeless recognition, at least among anglers, when on May 13, 1979, near the trail's farthest-most point from Lake Superior, the late LeRoy Chiovitte of Hermantown caught a 17-pound, 8-ounce walleye, a whopper of a state record that reigns still today.
Chiovitte, who died in 2019 at age 82, caught his chart-topper in the Sea Gull River between Sea Gull Lake and Saganaga Lake — waters that are no longer open to fishing so early in the season to protect spawning fish, which Chiovitte's walleye was.
When on July 4, 1989, Bruininks set out from his cabin for a few hours of fishing, he was well aware Chiovitte's big walleye had been caught not far down the Gunflint Trail from Loon Lake.
Yet on that same day when the "snag'' he hooked started to move, he suffered no illusions the fish on the end of his line might vie with Chiovitte's as the biggest walleye ever caught in Minnesota.
"When I finally got the fish toward the surface, I told the two young guys with me, 'Get the net,' '' Bruininks said. "They said, 'What net?' Turns out, we didn't have a net.
"So I told them to row us quietly to shore, which they did, and when the water was shallow enough, I got out and landed the fish by hand.''
Conditions under which the fish was caught belied those typically associated with productive walleye angling.
Shallow water in spring? No, the walleye was caught in deep water on July 4. Cloudy skies? No, sunny. Walleye "chop'' on the lake's surface? No, the lake was calm. Fish caught in early morning or late evening? No, it was caught about midday.
"I took the fish to Loon Lake Lodge, where I thought they had a certified scale, but they didn't,'' Bruininks said. "But I was there a long time. Willard Johnson was the owner at the time, and he wanted to take a bunch of photos of me in front of the lodge. He said, 'I don't want Gunflint Lake to get credit for this fish.' ''
The big walleye was toted to another resort, which also lacked a certified scale, before being brought to Gunflint Lodge, where it weighed in at 17 pounds, 6 ounces — 2 ounces shy of Chiovitte's record.
Two hours had passed from the time the fish was caught before it was weighed, likely reducing its heft by 6 ounces or more, had it been weighed earlier.
At 37 inches long, Bruininks' walleye was a full 1.25 inches longer than Chiovitte's. And unlike Chiovitte's fish, Bruininks' carried no spawn.
Throughout his years as U president, Bruininks kept a mount of the big walleye in his office (it's now in the Bell Museum at the U).
"One thing a fish like that does, when people hear about it or see a mount of it, it changes their interactions with you,'' Bruininks said.
"When I took over at the U, we had a big financial shortfall. I figured rather than lay people off, the best way to deal with it was to convince everyone to take a wage freeze. I went to eight unions and three employee groups to ask them to go along.
"The first question I always got was, 'Are the big shots also freezing their wages, or just us little people?'
"I would respond that everyone was freezing their wages, adding that I had also canceled the car allowances of U executives, including my own.''
With such minor details out of the way, more important topics could be discussed.
"The second question I'd get was,'' Bruininks said, " 'How'd you catch that walleye?' ''