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BRAD DOKKEN: Ice fishing on the opener? It might happen

The stage has been set; now, it's up to Mother Nature to deliver. And the way she's been acting so far this spring, there's little reason to believe she won't come through. If all goes according to plan, four of us who spent Minnesota's 1996 wall...

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The stage has been set; now, it's up to Mother Nature to deliver.

And the way she's been acting so far this spring, there's little reason to believe she won't come through.

If all goes according to plan, four of us who spent Minnesota's 1996 walleye opener ice fishing on Lake of the Woods will repeat the experience this year. Considering the cool spring and the amount of snow still on the ice, it's a good bet the big lake will have at least some ice cover on opening day.

One of the players in our 1996 adventure sent an email earlier this week gauging interest in the possibility of another May ice fishing rendezvous.

The replies were quick and unanimous: "Yes." "Count me in." "I'll be there."

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Whether there's enough ice to safely access the lake remains to be seen. But for now, the idea of repeating what we thought at the time would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience is making this Spring That Wasn't at least somewhat more palatable.

I floated the possibility of ice fishing on opening day in a column more than a month ago, but I figured it was a long shot, at best. Before 1996, after all, the last time Lake of the Woods had been locked in ice on opening day was 1950, according to what old-timers told us.

If anything, this spring's conditions strike home the point of how drastically things can change from one year to the next. Last year, Lake of the Woods was wide open by early April, and a friend and I spent an afternoon neither of us soon will forget jigging up walleye after walleye after walleye in a boat anchored north of Pine Island.

The date was April 14; this year, we could have driven a truck to the same spot April 14 -- provided, of course, we didn't get stuck in the snow.

The photos I took during our opening-day ice fishing excursion in 1996 were destroyed when the Herald burned during the Flood of 1997. But here's how I described the day in a story that ran in the May 16, 1996, outdoors section:

There we were, four of us, standing on the shore of one of North America's premier walleye factories. And we had it all to ourselves. No opening-day crowds. No outboard motors. Just morning silence, broken by the distinct drum of a male ruffed grouse looking for a mate, and miles and miles ... of ice.

As far as the eye could see there was ice. A sea of white. Not a boat in sight.

I've fished in some cruddy weather on Minnesota's walleye opener but that day wasn't one of them. We might have been standing on ice with the texture of a 2-foot-thick snow cone, but bright sun and a light wind made for shirtsleeve conditions by early afternoon.

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The weather that day was probably the best I've ever encountered on a walleye opener.

"The whole point was just to do it," Bob Ekstrom, who lived near Baudette, Minn., at the time but now lives in Bemidji, said in my story about the excursion. "We caught over 100 fish and kept 25 to eat, so that's a good day no matter what time you're out there."

Ekstrom, who has a reputation as an adventurer and a philosopher -- the fact that spell check tries to replace "Ekstrom" with "extreme" pretty much says it all -- also offered this pearl of wisdom in the story:

"It was the fact you were ice fishing through the ice on opening day that made it special," Ekstrom said. "And I hope I never have the opportunity to do it again."

This year, by the looks of things, he just might have that opportunity again.

Stay tuned.

Watching the weather

The late spring also likely has organizers of this year's Governor's Fishing Opener watching the thermometer and wringing their hands.

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Gov. Mark Dayton this year is scheduled to fish the Park Rapids (Minn.) Lakes Area, which is hosting the May 9-11 event.

Ironically, Bemidji hosted the Governor's Fishing Opener in 1996. That year, the ice went off Lake Bemidji the day before opener.

Walloped by weather

I generally don't attend Governor's Fishing Openers, preferring instead to enjoy the day fishing -- or not fishing -- on my terms, but I covered the 2004 event when Gov. Tim Pawlenty made the trek to Lake of the Woods.

Conditions leading up to the opener were ideal. The ice went off in plenty of time, water temperatures were beginning to rise and the big lake near the mouth of the Rainy River was poised to serve up impressive walleye catches.

Then, a storm packing high winds, heavy rain and cold temperatures walloped northern Minnesota the Tuesday before the opener. The water temperature plummeted, and the rain and wind turned the lake from its normal root beer-like color to something more closely resembling chocolate milk.

Cold, muddy water is never conducive to catching walleyes, but the governor, after getting skunked in the morning, extended his stay and managed to scratch out a 21-inch fish after lunch.

At least he didn't get skunked.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FISHINGLAKE OF THE WOODS
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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