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Fishing runs hot and cold for Lake of the Woods crew

Pete Howard of Stillwater, Minn., had reason to smile after landing this 25-inch walleye Sunday, May 13 on Lake of the Woods during the opening weekend of Minnesota's 2018 walleye season. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 1 / 6
Water splashes off a small iceberg Sunday, May 13 on Lake of the Woods. Aside from some lingering ice, the big lake was mostly open for last weekend's Minnesota Fishing Opener, and weather conditions were about as perfect as any angler could want. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)2 / 6
Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn., unhooks a walleye Sunday, May 13 on Lake of the Woods north of Pine Island. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 3 / 6
Heat waves mingling with lingering ice create a mirage effect Sunday, May 13 on Lake of the Woods. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 4 / 6
Anglers test the waters of Lake of the Woods for walleyes on Sunday, May 13 during the opening weekend of Minnesota's 2018 fishing season. Hundreds of boats dotted the lake north of Pine Island where ice had lingered just days earlier. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 5 / 6
As the sun dips toward a glass-calm horizon on Lake of the Woods, Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn., soaks in the surroundings as the opening day of Minnesota's 2018 walleye season draws to a close. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 6 / 6

ON LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn.—Anyone who says walleye fishing—or any kind of fishing, for that matter—is an equal opportunity pastime wasn't in Jason's Laumb's boat on the opening weekend of Minnesota's 2018 walleye season.

Despite weather that was about as close to perfect as you could ask for on a Minnesota Fishing Opener, the Black Cloud loomed large, at times, for a couple of fishermen in our crew.

I was one of them.

For the uninitiated—and if you are, you probably don't fish—the Black Cloud is a logic-defying phenomenon in which one or more anglers in a boat gets to watch and wish and occasionally grit their teeth while their fishing partners set hooks and reel in fish.

I've been on both sides of that coin, and I know which one I prefer. Nothing sends the Fun Meter plummeting much faster than the Black Cloud.

More on that later.

Rite of spring

Celebrating the Minnesota Fishing Opener on Lake of the Woods has become a much-anticipated rite of spring in recent years, and this year was no exception. Besides Laumb, of Grand Forks, and myself, rounding out the crew were Pete Howard of Stillwater, Minn.; his son, Peter, of St. Paul; and Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn.

We've all spent hours together on the water, in the woods and by campfires solving the world's problems, so Laumb's boat, a 17½-foot Yar-Craft, was a perfect venue for our springtime rendezvous.

Anticipation was high going into this year's opener, as evidenced by the throngs gathered in the lodge at Ballard's Resort as the clock ticked toward the official 12:01 a.m. May 12 starting time. Lake of the Woods isn't a night lake, so there was plenty of time for everyone to partake in a bit of merriment before wetting a line.

The part of the lake we'd be fishing near Pine Island and Lighthouse Gap past the mouth of the Rainy River had been ice-covered just days earlier, and satellite imagery showed occasional icebergs still lingered, shifting direction with the wind.

Given the late spring, the speculation—and the hope—was that the opener would be similar to 2014, a year when even more ice lingered on Lake of the Woods and big post-spawn walleyes were stacked in lower reaches of the Rainy River.

Catching walleyes below the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot that were small enough to keep for an opening-night fish fry was a challenge in 2014, but those of us who were there had no complaints about the number of big walleyes we landed that weekend.

If this year's opener served up more of the same, that would have been fine by us.

Then, after seeming as if it would take forever to get here, spring kicked into high gear as a miserable April gave way to May. The forecast leading up to the opener called for clear skies, temperatures in the high 60s to low 70s and—perhaps even more surprising—relatively calm winds.

How the sudden warm-up would affect walleye fishing was the big question.

On the water

On the water at the crack of 10 a.m. after the requisite coffee and conversation, we headed upriver to a spot that consistently has produced walleyes over the years.

Last year, we spent the entire opening weekend anchored and jigging along about a 50-yard stretch of river that gave us no reason to move.

The morning got off to a promising start, when Laumb set the hook on a 16-inch walleye within the first half hour. A couple of small walleyes and a sucker were to follow, but that would be the only keeper we'd put in the livewell.

A bear that spent more than half an hour at the top of a large aspen tree on the Ontario side of the river provided the highlight of the morning. The weather was absolutely glorious, a far cry from the rain, cold and wind we've endured some openers.

Perhaps we weren't miserable enough, I joked, borrowing a line from a fishing partner who's no longer with us.

After three hours of unproductive fishing, it was time for a lunch break and a siesta back at camp to regroup and plot a Plan B. The fate of our evening fish fry depended on it.

The plan was sealed a short time later, when Laumb phoned a friend who was on the lake north of Pine Island. The action wasn't fast and furious, he was told, but it definitely sounded more promising than the surprisingly slow fishing we encountered on the river.

The move turned out to be a good one.

We anchored among the pack of boats gathered north of Pine and dropped our jigs into about 19 feet of water. Jensen had the hot rod, pulling in walleyes and saugers at a pace that left those of us afflicted by the Black Cloud hoping for better days.

As the sun dipped toward the western horizon, light winds settled down to practically nothing, and the big lake took on the appearance of a massive mirror, tinted orange by the brilliant evening sky.

Reluctantly, we called it a day and headed back to camp.

Laumb and I filleted up a dozen fish, including a couple of bonus saugers, that served as the evening's main course. Having the staff at Ballard's fry up our catch for an evening fish fry has become much-anticipated walleye opener tradition, and this year's meal again lived up to expectations.

Served up with fries, onion rings and an absolutely amazing Cajun tartar sauce, the meal was a tasty ending to a day that saw me contribute a total of zero fish to the livewell.

Still, it was a most enjoyable day on the water.

Seeking a rebound

The gusty winds forecast for the second day of our trip never happened, so back to the lake we went. Driven by a southwest breeze that served up a perfect "walleye chop," scattered chunks of ice occasionally floated past the fleet of boats again gathered north of Pine Island.

Anchored first in 15 feet of water and later in 19 feet, the action picked up where it had left off the previous day. I managed to put a few walleyes in the livewell, but my showing was far from stellar.

Jensen, meanwhile, couldn't keep the fish off his line.

Sigh. ...

We—and I say "we" in the collective sense—came back to shore that night with another respectable catch that all of us will enjoy in the coming days and weeks.

The fish we kept all were perfect eaters. Laumb landed big fish honors for the weekend with a 28-inch walleye; four walleyes in the 25-inch range also found their way into the boat.

I took photos of all of them.

The 2018 Fishing Opener, it could be said, didn't deliver the number of big walleyes we had anticipated before spring's sudden arrival, but as one would expect with hundreds, if not thousands, of boats on the water, big fish were caught.

The weather was phenomenal, the company and food were excellent and laughs and good times were in abundance as we marked the unofficial beginning of summer.

Black Clouds aside, it doesn't get much better than that after a long winter.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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