CLEMENTSON, Minn.-It's a gray, dreary morning, and mist spits through the lingering fog, but that doesn't keep anglers by the hundreds from converging on the Rainy River on this Friday in early April.
Vehicle-boat trailer rigs line both sides of the road for several hundred yards from the Vidas Access boat ramp south nearly to Minnesota Highway 11 on the border of Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties.
The Rainy River is open, and anglers from across the region are getting their first taste of fishing in a boat after a long winter. Occasional remnants of ice float downstream through the fleet of boats, and snow lingers on both the U.S. and Canadian shorelines of the border river.
As they are many days throughout the spring walleye season, Hannah Mishler and Eric Benjamin are patrolling the river, making the rounds in a 19-foot Alumacraft powered by a 200-horse Honda outboard. Wishing they were fishing, perhaps, but more importantly, making sure anglers play by the rules. Conservation officers for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Mishler and Benjamin say they also welcome the return to open water after a long winter, even if they're not wetting lines.
"It's a nice change of pace," Benjamin said. "It's like all of our seasons. You look forward to them, but by the time they're done, you're tired of them.
"That's kind of the beauty of the job."
Mishler, of Kelliher, Minn., works the Baudette East station, an area that includes Upper Red Lake and parts of Lake of the Woods and Rainy River. Benjamin, of Roosevelt, Minn., has the Warroad North area, which includes parts of Lake of the Woods and Beltrami Island State Forest.
Both have been in their work areas for the past five years and graduated from the same conservation officer academy. Originally from the Ely, Minn., area, Mishler graduated from St. Cloud State University with a criminal justice degree before entering the academy. Benjamin, a Farmington, Minn., native, worked as a deputy in Anoka County before becoming a conservation officer.
A love for being outside drew them to the field, they say.
"I grew up literally in the middle of nowhere-no running water, no electricity," Mishler said. "I always had a passion for wanting to protect the resources just because I grew up using them so much."
The variety also is part of the attraction, Benjamin says; no two days are the same.
"You're outdoors, you're kind of free to do what you need to do, and every day is something new," he said.
Working the river
Mishler and Benjamin are among the team of DNR conservation officers who work spring walleye and sturgeon fishing on the Rainy River. The spring walleye season closes Sunday, April 14, and the focus will turn to sturgeon fishing, which is catch-and-release only through April 23, with a limited harvest season beginning April 24 and continuing through May 7.
Sturgeon fishing returns to catch-and-release only from May 8 through May 15; season is closed from May 16 through June 30.
Despite the crowds, which Mishler says are even bigger on the weekends, there's a laid-back atmosphere among the anglers trying their luck on this cloudy Friday. The Rainy River has a justified reputation for trophy walleyes and action that can border on spectacular, but fishing generally is slow.
It's a familiar refrain for Mishler and Benjamin as they motor among the boats congregated along several miles of river.
"Hi guys, how's it going?" Mishler asks as they pull up to a boat occupied by Paul Austin of Barnesville, Minn.; Ryan Teiken of Devils Lake; and Kris Nissen of Aitkin, Minn.
"Quiet-only two fish so far," is the reply. After a livewell check and quick look at licenses, life jackets and other safety equipment, the officers wish the trio luck and continue on their way.
"You can't catch fish if you're not out here, so you're halfway there right now," she says to another group of anglers in a nearby boat having similar luck.
They don't check every boat, instead watching for obvious violations such as expired boat registrations, fishing with too many lines or just stopping to chat and exchange greetings with anglers.
It's not all about trying to write as many tickets as they can, in other words.
Still, Benjamin says, they do occasionally run across behavior that warrants a closer look.
"The ones that are worried will pull anchor and try to move out-those are the ones" to watch, he said. "When you get in a group and nobody moves, those are legit."
There's a new twist for anglers fishing the Rainy River and Four-Mile Bay of Lake of the Woods this spring, with regulations that went into effect March 1 and continue through April 14 requiring anglers to release all walleyes and saugers they catch.
Previously, anglers could keep two walleyes less than 19½ inches during the spring season.
So far, compliance with the catch-and-release regulation has been good, Mishler and Benjamin say.
"We haven't had any issues yet," Mishler said. "I haven't run into anybody trying to keep walleyes yet, which is good."
The catch-and-release regulation also applies to U.S. anglers who buy Ontario licenses and fish the Canadian side of the river, they say; anglers can't cross the border with walleyes from the Rainy River during the spring season.
"You can catch fish on the Canadian side if you have an Ontario license, but you are not able to bring those fish back into Minnesota, which I think a lot of people may or not be aware of that right now," Mishler said. "You can't possess the fish at all in Minnesota. So even with that Ontario license, you're still not able to bring those fish back into the states."
The fog lifts and the spitting mist quits, but cloudy skies persist into the afternoon hours as Mishler and Benjamin end their patrol. Walleye fishing is slow, and most boats say they haven't caught more than a couple of fish.
The highlight is a 59½-inch sturgeon the two officers watch Kevin Longtin of Grand Forks catch early in their patrol. Had they stopped by a few minutes earlier, they're told, they could have watched Wyatt Casavan of Red Lake Falls, Minn., land his first-ever sturgeon, a brute measuring 60½ inches.
They check about 20 boats during their time on the water, issuing a warning for no throwable life preserver onboard and a citation for a boat with an expired registration.
"You run into that quite a bit because they're so excited, they just grab their gear and go," Benjamin said.
Those minor violations aside, every other angler they checked was playing by the rules. That, too, is pretty common, the officers say.
"Half the time, it's just being out here in uniform, and people see that," Mishler said.
They'll be back on the water tomorrow.