BAUDETTE, Minn. -- A few days earlier, and we'd have been basking in 70-degree heat and light winds.
But really, what fun would that have been? A dose of adversity should be part of the mix when it comes to spring fishing.
Adversity certainly was in the forecast Monday morning, when three of us launched at the Wheeler's Point boat access for a day of chasing walleyes near the mouth of the Rainy River. The forecast called for a high in the low 40s and southeast winds gusting to 30 mph.
That was accurate, judging by the windsock upstream from the boat ramp. The orange landmark on the far side of the river already was fully extended from the southeasterly gale that buffeted the water.
This gray, blustery day in late March wouldn't be for the faint of heart, but judging by the overflowing parking lot and the pickup-boat trailer rigs parked along state Highway 172, that wasn't a detriment.
Anglers will put up with a lot for the chance to hook a trophy spring walleye on the Rainy River.
Joining me were Bob Glassmann of Roseau, Minn., and Jason Laumb of Grand Forks. A retired industrial arts teacher, Glassmann said he'd be satisfied to catch one 14-inch walleye on the day -- he says that every time we fish together -- while Laumb, a senior research manager at the UND Energy and Environmental Research Center, was hoping to land his first open-water walleye on the Minnesota portion of Lake of the Woods or Rainy.
If the reports of 100-fish days we'd heard from the previous week were any indication, both goals were within reach.
Walleye season on the river and other Minnesota-Ontario border waters continues through April 14.
Timing is crucial
Spring fishing on the Rainy is all about timing, though, and river flows and water clarity can have a big impact on angler success. When tributary streams open and spring runoff hits the river, water clarity decreases and fishing success plummets.
That's not just fish talk, either. Dennis Topp, assistant area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, said the pattern is as predictable as the urge that attracts walleyes to swim upstream from Lake of the Woods every year to spawn.
"I had a guy call me late last week, and he was trying to figure out when to take a trip to the Rainy River," Topp said. "And I said my advice, based on 20 years of working with this fishery, is that I can tell you right now that today, fishing is good, and if I was you, I would plan a trip now.
"I have seen things change, and you have no way of predicting what the weather's going to do, what's going to happen. It can change quickly, and when those conditions occur here, you can't catch a fish. The best anglers in the world are up here under those conditions, and I've seen them all leave skunked."
The water Monday morning wasn't muddy, but it wasn't at prime clarity, either. The photos of anglers basking in the sun holding trophy-sized walleyes, which were all over the fishing websites just a few days earlier, seemed like a distant memory.
Still, we were in the boat and we were going fishing. There are worse scenarios to face on a Monday morning.
Open to the lake
It's been an odd year, and Four-Mile Bay of Lake of the Woods, which picks up where Rainy River leaves off, already had been clear of ice a few days. Traditionally, Topp said, Four-Mile Bay isn't accessible by boat until the last days of the spring season. Most of the spring fishing pressure occurs farther upstream where the river opens earlier.
This year's early ice-out has given anglers more places to fish along the river, but most of the traffic in recent days had been focused on Wheeler's Point. Last Saturday morning, Topp said, a DNR employee conducting a creel survey counted 211 boat-carrying rigs at the Wheeler's Point access.
By comparison, the busiest upstream ramp near Clementson, Minn., had 43 rigs.
"The fact we can access all the way to the lake already is very unusual," Topp said. "This is uncharted territory for us; it's different than anything that anybody remembers here, even for old-timers."
Some of the best reports were coming from Four-Mile Bay so we navigated through the armada of boats near the mouth of the Rainy and anchored along the edge of the river channel that flows through the bay. The boat swing that resulted from the pounding wind allowed us to vary our depth from 8 to 11 feet of water.
Only the lids on our coffee mugs kept the wind from stirring the brew into whitecaps.
We baited up with frozen shiners that were slow to thaw and lowered our jigs into the depths, trying to ignore the wind that pummeled our faces. If a fish didn't bite within 45 minutes, we'd pull anchor in search of more productive water.
That wouldn't be necessary.
We hadn't been fishing long when I felt a weight at the end of my line, the subtle presence of a walleye mouthing the bait in water that had been covered with ice only days earlier.
It's the way you expect a fish to bite on cold, blustery days in late March.
I waited several agonizing seconds and set the hook into a chunky, 17-inch walleye that soon flopped in the bottom of the box.
Glassmann lost a walleye beside the boat a short time later that we estimated would have measured 23 inches, considerably larger than the 19½-inch maximum allowed during the Rainy River spring season.
He redeemed himself a few minutes later with a 25-inch fish that stuck around just long enough for a picture.
Considering the weather, the fishing was surprisingly good, and we hooked -- or in several cases, missed -- a walleye every few minutes. Judging by the number of boats running around in search of new fishing spots, we didn't see any reason to move, and we stayed anchored in the same spot all day.
No one kept count, but by day's end, the three of us estimated we'd landed 30 walleyes, including several that were too big to keep. The biggest walleye of the day measured 27 inches, and a fish that likely would have been even bigger shook the jig at the boat.
Without getting too specific, the angler who lost the fish wasn't named Brad or Jason.
The wind was relentless, and by the time we pulled anchor late that afternoon, my gloveless hands were stinging and swollen from the cold. The desire for warmth had overtaken the desire for walleyes.
"I hear it's supposed to get really windy tomorrow," Glassmann joked.
Under such adverse conditions, we felt like we'd really accomplished something by making it through the day. The fish cooperated, and Glassmann and Laumb both had surpassed their walleye goals many times over.
As we steered the truck west toward home, the heater cranked on high had seldom felt better.
"It was cold out there today," Glassmann said. "But it sure was fun."
It sure was.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to email@example.com.