LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH – At about 67,000 acres, this wide spot in the Mississippi River is the fifth-largest lake in Minnesota. More than a century ago, loggers, fur traders and others downstream had argued for a more constant flow of the big river, and in 1881 and again a few years later, the government acquiesced and built the Winnibigoshish Lake Dam.
Construction of the dam created a lake with a maximum depth of 70 feet and a mean depth of about 15, ideal for the propagation of perch, walleyes and northern pike. Saturday morning, opening of the state's inland fishing season for the year, anglers in multiple flotillas sought one or more of these species, walleyes in particular, and many were successful.
Our group numbered a baker's dozen, and most of us were on the water by 7 a.m.
Out of 10 Minnesota fishing openers, seven are likely to be windy, snowy or rainy. Comparatively, Saturday was a day on the beach, any beach. The rain that fell Friday across much of northern Minnesota had dissipated, and the morning breeze was scant.
The only question was whether we'd catch fish.
Recent Department of Natural Resources test nettings of "Winnie'' tipped the odds in our favor. Though walleye recruitment — successfully hatched eggs that grow to fingerling size and beyond — was poor between 2014 and 2017, year classes of 2018 and 2019 walleyes were successful, so much so that 43% of walleyes sampled in Winnibigoshish by the DNR in 2019 were hatched that year.
Steve Vilks, Joe Hermes and I hoped Saturday morning to put some of these now 13- to-17-inch "eaters" in our live well, and hoped also to boat some of Winnie's larger walleyes.
Our group was headquartered at McArdle's Resort, a fixture on Winnie since the 1920s. Located in the lake's southwest corner, the resort offers easy access to a series of points that define Winnie's western shore.
Leaving McArdle's dock, the first among these is near the shallow-water entrance to adjoining Sugar Lake. And it was there, on Winnie, in about 15 feet of water, that we first tried our luck, joining as we did a half-dozen or so other boats.
Impaling a shiner minnow on a quarter-ounce jig, Steve sailed his rig about 20 feet from the boat.
Soon enough, we were into fish.
Yellow perch chomped our baits first. While hoping the next bite, or the next or next, would yield a walleye, we valued the perch as table fare, and kept the plumpest among them.
A short while later, Steve's line tightened.
"There's one," he said,
Though still obscured by clouds, the sun had gathered strength, and Steve's fish-catching outline was backlit by the gathering radiance. For the half-million or more Minnesotans who had anticipated this day for weeks and even months, and who especially anticipated the tug of a walleye on the end of a line, this was a comforting image, the silhouette of an angler, his rod bent deeply, and a fish being caught.
Soon, Joe also had a walleye in the boat, as did I. These weren't big fish, and some were thrown back. Most likely, we figured, they were representative of the abundant 2018 and 2019 year classes the DNR found in its test nettings.
Also, they were males who were still hanging around in or near spawning areas, abandoned there by females who had dispersed to deeper water.
In a nearby boat, and also in our group, John and Jodi Weyrauch were similarly finding walleyes, as were, in their boats, Denny Lien and Terry Arnesen, Tom Ellsworth and his bunch, and Bob Kowalski, et al.
Occasionally, one of us boated a northern pike. But most fish that took our baits were walleyes.
Until late morning, the action stayed fairly steady. Then, due to the higher sun, the motoring of so many boats on the lake, or for other indecipherable, mystery reasons, the bite fell off.
Governed by a six-walleye limit and a protected slot of 18 to 23 inches, Winnie's harvest regulations are generous compared to Minnesota's other large destination walleye lakes.
When we returned to McArdle's for lunch, Steve, Joe and I had 15 walleyes in our live well, each under 18 inches.
The prize, meanwhile, for the biggest fish caught in our group went to Arnesen, who tied up at the dock with a 23½-inch walleye.
In addition to perch and walleye, the menu Saturday evening for our walleye-opener feast included tossed salad, pasta with venison, deep-fried potatoes and assorted other goodies.
One more opener.
And a good one.