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Dokken: 'Bonus' November days are made for fishing – even during deer season

My arm doesn’t need to be twisted very hard to go fishing instead of deer hunting. That’s especially true during those years when the November temperature soars into the 60s and occasionally even into the 70s.

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The sun sets over the Red River in Manitoba near Lake Winnipeg on Nov. 14, 2015, a gorgeous fall day when the walleyes were biting and sunset came much too early. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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The opening weekend of deer season in Minnesota and North Dakota ranks among the biggest events of the year on the outdoors calendar, but my favorite memories of the opener involve a different outdoors pursuit.

That would be fishing.

Frankly, I’m better at it, and historically, I’ve had way more success.

My arm doesn’t need to be twisted very hard to go fishing instead of deer hunting. That’s especially true during those years when the November temperature soars into the 60s and occasionally even into the 70s. Not exactly ideal deer hunting weather, to be sure, but for a late fall fishing excursion, those summer-like November days are nothing short of a lark.

Bonus days, I call them.

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One of my favorite deer-season fishing excursions occurred about 20 years ago on the Rainy River along the Minnesota-Ontario border near Clementson, Minnesota. The walleyes bit all day, and they were still biting when I left.
For most of the day, I had the river to myself.

The seeds for that late-fall fishing adventure had been planted a few days earlier, when I saw an extended weather forecast that called for several days of sunny skies, light winds and a high temperature in the 60s.

I worked the Saturday of Minnesota deer season opener that year, visiting a hunting camp in Beltrami Island State Forest for a story about the hunting tradition all of the camp members shared.

Because I had Monday – the third day of deer season – off, the glorious weather forecast gave me no choice.

I had to go fishing; the choice was obvious.

I left the yard, boat in tow, long before daylight that Monday morning and was at the Vidas Landing boat ramp near Clementson by 8 a.m.

As predicted, the wind was light and the sky was clear. The morning air had a definite bite, I recall, but I was dressed for the occasion. Conditions would turn from chilly to comfortable soon enough.

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I boated a short distance upriver to a familiar fishing spot, and my jig had barely hit the bottom when I felt the much-anticipated “thunk” of a fish at the other end of the line. Moments later, I landed my first fish of the day, a 24-inch walleye.

Too big to keep, but a perfect way to start the day.

Historically – in my experience, at least – dropping anchor and waiting for the walleyes is the most productive way to jig fish the Rainy River in the fall. The walleyes are on the move, after all, and they’ll get to you eventually. Typically, fishing will proceed with a series of flurries and lulls throughout the day.

For whatever reason, the walleyes that day were having none of it, and I couldn’t buy a fish unless I set up a controlled “slip drift” to keep the boat moving downstream at a speed slower than the pace of the current.

I dropped anchor for a midday siesta in the November sun, but I didn’t catch a walleye until I started drifting again.

I don’t recall how many walleyes I caught that day, but I was one fish short of my limit of the “eater”-size fish I wanted to keep by 10 a.m. Drifting about a 100-yard stretch of river, every pass produced a walleye or three.

I put my last walleye on the stringer and called it a bonus day well spent shortly after 4 p.m.

If not for the rifle shots I occasionally heard on either side of the river, I never would have known it was deer season.

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Another equally glorious day occurred during deer season in November 2015, when I joined a Canadian friend for two days of “greenback” walleye fishing on the Manitoba side of the Red River, a couple of miles from where the river flows into Lake Winnipeg.

Again, the sky was clear, temperatures climbed into the 60s, and there was very little wind.

Even better, the “greenbacks,” as walleyes in the system are called for their iridescent bluish-green backs, cooperated.

The only downside was the time change, which had occurred a couple of weeks earlier; the end of daylight hours came much too soon.

Anchoring was the ticket that day, as I recall, and we didn’t pull anchor and move more than once or twice the entire day. We didn’t catch any “masters” – walleyes big enough to meet the 28-inch minimum requirement for Travel Manitoba’s popular Master Angler program – but I did lose a heavy fish that shook the jig a few feet from the boat.

We never got to see that walleye, and it’s probably just as well.

My oh my, though, what a fine bonus day that was.

Temperatures for this year’s deer season – while quite nice for November – aren’t looking nearly as balmy as they did for those memorable bonus days in the boat. More likely than not, the next walleye I catch will be through the ice.

There’ll be other bonus days, though, hopefully. And when they happen, I’ll be there with my fishing rod.

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Brad Dokken

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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