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The hunt for big walleyes never gets old for veteran Lake of the Woods fisherman

A St. Thomas, N.D., native, Byron Eilertson (pronounced ELL-ertson), of Andover, Minn., has a trailer house at Rocky Point on Lake of the Woods and has landed an astounding 107 walleyes – at last count – over 30 inches since 1977, when he bought his first boat.

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Byron Eilertson of Andover, Minn., with a 24-inch walleye he released Monday, July 26, 2021, on Lake of the Woods. A St. Thomas, N.D., native, Eilertson has a place at Rocky Point and has landed 107 walleyes measuring 30 inches or longer during his fishing career. (Brad Dokken/ Grand Forks Herald)

ON LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. – Just because there are big walleyes in the lake doesn’t mean they are going to bite.

But there’s always that chance. And for Byron Eilertson, that’s what keeps him coming back.

Pretty much every day, from mid-May through late October.

A St. Thomas, N.D., native, Eilertson (pronounced ELL-ertson), of Andover, Minn., has a trailer house at Rocky Point on Lake of the Woods and has landed an astounding 107 walleyes – at last count – over 30 inches since 1977, when he bought his first boat.

As fishing accomplishments go, that’s quite a milestone.

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Eilertson already has released five walleyes over 30 inches this summer on Lake of the Woods, including fish measuring 31 and 32 inches. He catches them on spinners and crawlers, mostly – a Lake of the Woods staple – but also lands big walleyes on jigs and live bait rigs.

There’s something about the sight of a big walleye that never gets old, says Eilertson, whose tally of big walleyes includes six fish 32 inches or longer.

Any way you measure it, walleyes that size are something special.

“It doesn’t go away,” Eilertson, 71, said. “Every time you go fishing, you hope to catch a bigger one.

“It’s just kind of an amazing feeling to see that fish.”

Whoppers and memories

A retired industrial arts teacher at Fridley High School who also owned a remodeling business, Eilertson says his first five 30-inch walleyes came from Lake Mille Lacs, where he fished because it was closest to his home in the Twin Cities.

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Nearly every trophy since then has come from Lake of the Woods. Eilertson and his wife, Paula, have had a place at Rocky Point for over 20 years “and have enjoyed every day of owning it,” he said.

Looking at the walls of the mobile home, it’s easy to see why. Eilertson has several mounted walleyes up to 33 inches long – his biggest weighed a whopping 14 pounds, 3 ounces – and a stringer of four walleyes over 30 inches long that serves as a reminder of perhaps the most memorable day of fishing he’s ever had while fishing a series of reefs along the Minnesota-Ontario border.

They’re not the same fish he caught that day in August 2010, Eilertson says, because of Lake of the Woods regulations that allow anglers to keep only one walleye over 28 inches in their daily limit. Eventually, though, he caught and mounted enough matching-size walleyes to replicate what the stringer from that memorable day would have looked like.

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A stringer of mounted walleyes, caught at various times over the years, serves as a reminder of one of the most memorable days of fishing Byron Eilertson has ever had on Lake of the Woods. (Brad Dokken/ Grand Forks Herald)

Even all these years later, Eilertson marvels at the day.

“I dropped my line in, and the first fish was 31¼ inches,” he said. “An hour later, I catch one that was just a little over 30. So now I have two big walleyes, and the other guys with me, their biggest was like 24 inches.

“We had some nice eaters, too.”

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Eilertson’s third fish of the day measured 30¼ inches. The action slowed, Eilertson recalls, so he reeled up and moved to another nearby reef. This time, he decided to switch to a jig instead of the spinners he’d been fishing all day.

Eilertson lowered the jig and got bit almost immediately.

“I missed it, dropped the jig back down, and – whack! – the fish hit it again,” he said.

Walleye No. 4 measured 30⅛ inches, Eilertson recalls.

“Unbelievable – whoever would think you’d have four fish like that,” he said. “Not in my wildest dreams.”

The quest resumes

It was with that backdrop of anticipation that Eilertson and three fishing partners set out from Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort on a Monday morning in late July to the same distant reefs where he landed those big walleyes back in August 2010.

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Byron Eilertson shares a story while heading out to a fishing spot Monday, July 26, 2021, on Lake of the Woods. (Brad Dokken/ Grand Forks Herald)

They’re known for eating tackle, these snaggy reefs – especially for less experienced anglers – but the crack at a big walleye was a fair trade in Eilertson’s world.

He hadn’t been there yet this summer, and the anticipation was palpable.

“We’ll see,” he said. “It could be hit or miss, but we’re going to try it.”

Unlike the previous day, Lake of the Woods was calm on this Monday morning, and the 12-mile trip to the reefs in Eilertson’s 22-foot Crestliner didn’t take long.

Unfortunately, the walleyes weren’t on the rocks like Eilertson had hoped they’d be. An hour of fishing and several snags – “you’ve got to pay attention,” he said with a laugh – produced only a couple of small saugers.

It goes that way sometimes.

“Over the years, you learn a lot of techniques and so on,” Eilertson said. “You hope they’re there, and if they aren’t, you try another reef. There are so many reefs that you can fish and try, but so far nothing.”

It was time to search out new water.

“Two minutes, and we’re out of here,” Eilertson said.

Family connections

There’s a lot of history at Rocky Point for Eilertson, whose grandfather, Nathan, built one of the first cabins on this part of Lake of the Woods.

“In the early years, my dad and mom would bring us up here, and we’d oar the boats out of Rocky Point,” Eilertson said. “And then, we got a 9.9-horse motor and thought we were king.”

Lake of the Woods in those days had a reputation as “home of the quarter-pounder,” for the abundance of small walleyes that managed to elude the commercial fishing nets.

“I remember going into the fish cleaning shack in the ’50s and ’60s, and if there was a 5-pounder on the table, that was a big deal,” Eilertson said. “And of course, nobody knew about the reefs at that time or very little about them. You might hit them by trial and error, but that’s it.”

The advent of bigger boats and whiz-bang electronics in the late ’70s and ’80s cleared the way for traveling to offshore reefs that previously were too far away for most anglers, Eilertson says.

In addition, the state of Minnesota bought out the commercial netters on the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods in the mid-’80s.

“That’s when you started to catch the big fish – in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said.

Daily routine

Eilertson, who occasionally fills in as a charter boat driver for Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort, says he tries to fish every day. So far this summer, except for a recent reunion of Vietnam veterans in Milwaukee, Eilertson hasn’t missed a day of fishing since the mid-May Minnesota walleye opener.

“I had a launch trip a week and a half ago, and I was pretty tired, so I went out fishing (to a reef near the resort) for an hour because I didn’t want to miss a day of fishing and caught a 31-inch walleye,” he said. “I thought it was bigger than the 32 (incher) I caught, but I took a nice picture and released it.

“So the feeling is still there; I still enjoy it.”

The distant reefs weren’t producing on this day so Eilertson shifted gears and moved to the deep mud in the middle of Big Traverse Bay, the massive expanse that makes up the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods.

He landed a 24-inch walleye before heading back north, this time to an area near Stony Point closer to the Minnesota-Manitoba border. His electronics showed plenty of fish, but they were mostly tight-lipped, except for a couple of eater-sized walleyes that were destined for the frying pan.

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A hand-painted sign reading "Byron's Secret Spot" is among the fishing memorabilia on the walls of Byron Eilertson's trailer house at Rocky Point on Lake of the Woods. (Brad Dokken/ Grand Forks Herald)

A looming thunderstorm convinced Eilertson and his fishing partners to call it a day earlier than they otherwise would have, a move that turned out to be a wise choice.

He’d be back on the water tomorrow.

And the next day. And the next day.

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Several mounted walleyes, including this trophy, hang from the walls of Byron Eilertson's trailer house at Rocky Point on Lake of the Woods. Eilertson has landed 107 walleyes measuring 30 inches or longer during his fishing career. (Brad Dokken/ Grand Forks Herald)

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