Dokken: Lake of the Woods serves up another fine Minnesota Fishing Opener
The goal on this opening day was to catch enough keeper-size walleyes for an evening fish fry that night at Ballard’s Resort, our base for the weekend.
NEAR BAUDETTE, Minn. – So there we were on Lake of the Woods.
Opening morning of Minnesota’s walleye season, and boy, did it feel good to be in a boat bouncing a jig off the bottom in open water again after a winter that lingered much too long.
Would the walleyes and saugers cooperate?
We’d find out soon enough.
The players in this cast of fishing opener characters were Jason Laumb, Brad Durick and Durick’s 13-year-old son, Braden, of Grand Forks. Laumb supplied the boat, as he does every opener, and I rounded out the crew as the elder statesman.
The original plan on this opening morning – they call it the “Minnesota Fishing Opener” but everybody knows it’s really all about the walleye – was to head a few miles up the Rainy River and avoid the fleet of boats that would be anchored in Four-Mile Bay.
More often than not, our river spot is a consistent producer on opening weekend if the conditions – specifically water levels and water clarity – are right. And with the late spring, we figured the odds of intercepting walleyes returning to Lake of the Woods after spawning in the river would be in our favor.
They should have been in our favor, but alas, Mother Nature intervened.
River conditions weren’t right; in fact, they were opposite of right.
The weather for last weekend’s fishing opener was about as perfect as one could ask for, with highs in the upper 70s, mostly light winds and skies that ranged from clouds to clear.
Unfortunately, heavy rains that doused the border country a few days earlier had left waterlogged farm fields and raised the level of the Rainy River at Manitou Rapids by 2 feet, based on the river levels gauge on the National Weather Service website.
Worse yet, the rains had clouded the normally rootbeer-colored water, and the fast-moving current carried our ¾-ounce jigs – easily big enough under normal conditions – downstream like they weighed nothing. We could have upsized, but the muddied-up water didn't offer much cause for optimism.
So back we went to Four-Mile Bay at the mouth of the river.
Taking our place among the pack of boats, we dropped jigs tipped with frozen emerald shiners into 11½ feet of water; Laumb used the i-Pilot feature on his Minn Kota trolling motor to hold the boat – a Yar-Craft 209 fishing machine dubbed the “SS Sasquatch” – in place.
The goal on this opening day was to catch enough keeper-size walleyes for an evening fish fry that night at Ballard’s Resort, our base for the weekend. Having the resort’s kitchen crew cook up our catch, served family style with fries and their special Cajun tartar sauce, has become a tradition over the years.
We had only a single sauger in the box when we took a mid-afternoon lunch break. Not because the walleyes weren’t biting, but because everything we caught was in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot limit on Lake of the Woods and too big to keep.
That’s rarely a problem in my world, but we’d need smaller fish if we were to keep with tradition and avoid “shame burgers” that night.
After lunch and a siesta back at the cabin, we decided to head through Four-Mile Bay and out past Lighthouse Gap into the main part of Lake of the Woods in hopes of finding smaller fish. There wasn’t much happening on the lake, though – not where we were fishing, at least – and we wasted little time in deciding to head back to Four-Mile Bay.
The big fish parade continued, and everyone boated walleyes measuring 25 inches or more by day’s end. Braden Durick landed his new “PB” – personal best – walleye, which stretched the tape at 27¾ inches, before lunch, easily topping his previous PB of 24 inches, and his dad landed a 29-incher later in the afternoon.
Switching from ¾-ounce jigs to 1-ounce jigs improved catch rates for some, and the fishing, which had been slow but steady throughout the day, picked up early in the evening, about the time many boats were calling it a day. By the time we headed back to shore to celebrate the end of a fine day on the water, we had added half a dozen “keeper” walleyes and a bonus jumbo perch to the box, easily enough for the fish fry we’d enjoy a short time later in the resort’s very loud and boisterous bar.
The weather on Day 2 was about as ideal as you could ask for on a Minnesota Fishing Opener, but instead of walleyes too big to keep, perfect eaters comprised most of the catch, along with a few fish at the lower end of the protected slot.
By day’s end, we had clicked off 21 walleyes on the counter and missed or lost our share of others. All of the fish we caught were released.
It had been a fine Minnesota Fishing Opener.