Cold lake, hot fishing: Walleye action on Lake of the Woods begins with a bang

BAUDETTE, Minn. -- Years from now, people are going to be talking about this year's walleye opener on Lake of the Woods as one for the ages. It got lost in the hoopla of a Governor's Fishing Opener on White Bear Lake -- Stop the presses, the gove...

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BAUDETTE, Minn. -- Years from now, people are going to be talking about this year's walleye opener on Lake of the Woods as one for the ages.

It got lost in the hoopla of a Governor's Fishing Opener on White Bear Lake -- Stop the presses, the governor caught a 15-inch northern! -- and received little to no mention from media outlets across Minnesota, but Lake of the Woods served up the kind of fishing that just doesn't come around often.

Perhaps it's just as well that reports were scarce; no one would have believed the stories anyway. Even the barrage of photos I've seen -- and some I've taken myself -- of smiley-faced anglers holding big walleyes doesn't do it justice.

The walleyes were biting from the drop of the first jig last Saturday morning, and they're still biting.

Frankly, the only way to comprehend fishing like that is to experience it firsthand.


I didn't fish opening day, a cold, blustery affair in which the walleyes were on a rampage and reports of 25- to 30-inch fish were common. But in the name of "research," Al Nelson of Roseau, Minn., and I made the trek to Lake of the Woods on Monday night for a Tuesday excursion.

The stories were flying as soon as we walked into Ballard's Resort, our home base for the adventure.

"You won't believe it," we heard. "It's just crazy."

Big fish. Numbers of fish. Anchored and jigging. Four-Mile Bay. Rainy River.

Didn't seem to matter where you dropped a line, the stories went, the walleyes were biting.

Something special

Those kind of reports always make me nervous because "you should have been here yesterday," tends to be the refrain about the time I hit the water.

That wasn't the case Tuesday. Not even cloudy skies, intermittent spits of rain and a brisk southeast wind could put a damper on the action.


This was something special.

We were fishing with Merwyn Rolin, a Rothsay, Minn., native who's beginning his 11th year on Lake of the Woods. As a veteran charter boat captain, he's seen plenty of openers, including last year's gangbuster.

But even that doesn't compare with this year, he said.

Driving a snazzy new 28-foot Sportcraft equipped with two diesel engines, Rolin didn't have to travel far before he dropped anchor in Four-Mile Bay in 14½ feet of water.

Also fishing in Rolin's boat were Dale and Calvin Jansen of Faribault, Minn., and Steve Quist of Milltown, Wis. All three had fished the previous day and reported the action was excellent not only for big walleyes, but numbers of fish.

Fishing picked right up where it had left off. There was a short lull late in the morning when Rolin fired up the diesel engines to let them warm up before moving in search of more productive water.

That was the plan, at least.

For whatever reason, the walleyes turned on again, and Rolin spent the next half hour netting fish while the diesel engines purred. "Doubles" were common, even the occasional triple, and there were several times when my 1-ounce jig barely hit the bottom before I had another walleye.


In the strong current, every walleye put up a battle. Who says walleyes don't fight?

Rolin finally decided to shut down the engines and stay put.

What's going on?

There's a school of thought that walleye fishing on Lake of the Woods doesn't heat up until Memorial Day weekend. The water's still too cold, the theory goes, and the walleyes haven't recovered from spawning.

Not so this year. The water temperature Tuesday was in the upper-40s, but it didn't affect the walleyes' willingness to bite.

So why's the fishing so hot when the water's so cold? In a nutshell, you might say the stars have aligned.

According to Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., this year's late spring and the early date for this year's opener have combined to give anglers the kind of walleye fishing they'd normally encounter during the pre-spawn run in late March and early April on the Rainy River.

Many of the walleyes in the Rainy River probably hadn't spawned opening day, Heinrich said, and the fish congregated in Four-Mile Bay likely were post-spawn fish on their way back to the lake.


All but one or two of the walleyes we caught Tuesday appeared to have spawned.

As we saw for ourselves, Heinrich said the stories of people catching big numbers of big walleyes since opening day aren't fish tales. On a lake where walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches have to be a released, that can be a frustration when seeking fillets for the frying pan.

"I've heard from a number of people that they had a hard time catching the keepers," Heinrich said.

He also heard a report of two guys limiting out in 15 minutes. "And I have no doubt they were able to do that," Heinrich said.

The torrid fishing could last another week or so until water temperatures rise and the walleyes move into the lake, Heinrich said. Fishing will still be good, but anglers likely won't encounter the concentrations of walleyes they've experienced in the past week.

Quite a day

We didn't keep an official tally Tuesday, but by the time Rolin pulled the anchor shortly before 4 p.m. to try a spot upriver for the last hour of the day -- if only for a change of scenery -- we estimated we'd easily landed more than 100 walleyes.

Of that total, at least three-fourths of the walleyes were in the protected slot and another dozen or more measured from 25 inches anywhere up to 29½ inches, our biggest of the day.


Keeping an official count would have been fun, but at the same time, we were too caught up in enjoying the moment to care.

Boats around us, which Rolin said had dwindled considerably from the fleet in Four-Mile Bay opening weekend, were basically doing the same thing.

We couldn't help but wonder: If we were catching that many walleyes anchored in a single spot, just how many fish were down there?

The reports were right: Fishing was "crazy."

Days like that don't come around often. But when they do, they're pure magic.

Just ask anyone who's fished Lake of the Woods in the past week.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .


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, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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