DEER RIVER, Minn. -- Something crazy happened last week on the Minnesota fishing opener. The sun rose.
No kidding. You could see it and everything. It rose in the east, melted the frost from the docks at Williams Narrows Resort on Cut Foot Sioux Lake north of Deer River and kept shining all day. In the dawn's early light, anglers at this historic resort piled into boats and ventured out for an opener that wasn't assured until the ice finally left adjoining Big Winnibigoshish Lake one Wednesday.
Aaron Murphy, a 38-year-old fishing guide, was on the water shortly after dawn with his longtime friend Tom Paulley.
"I've been waiting for this day for quite a while," Murphy said.
I joined Murphy and Paulley for the first half of opening day, and we joined hundreds of other anglers on these popular waters. The action started shortly after we dropped quarter-ounce jigs and minnows into 14 feet of water on McAvity Bay of Cut Foot Sioux Lake.
"Feels like a good one," Murphy said.
Waiting, waiting until he felt the fish had committed, Murphy raised his rod tip sharply.
It was a good one, all right. She was a 21-inch walleye, fresh from her spawning run upstream in the Cut Foot Sioux Flowage, which drops into famed Big Winnie.
Murphy tossed her back to the lake.
That was an indication of how opening morning would go for most anglers on these waters. Walleye fishing was good, if not fast, but catching walleyes small enough to take home proved challenging. A slot limit on these lakes requires that anglers return all walleyes from 17 to 26 inches immediately to the lake.
It's a good thing Big Winnie and its adjoining waters have such a rule, or a lot of mama walleyes probably would have wound up in skillets.
If catching eater walleyes was a problem, it was a problem most anglers could live with on this luxurious opener. We were peeling off layers before 8 a.m. The temperature rose into the 60s. The wind was largely a no-show, especially early.
"It seems like we haven't had sunshine for a month," Paulley said between bites.
It might prove to be the only sunshine we have in about a two-week stretch, but it couldn't have come on a better day. Loons wailed. Folks in tent camps along shore watched bobbers. Anglers afloat leaned back, soaked up sun and waited for the next bite.
Murphy's trolling motor nudged us along at one-half mile per hour. These spawned-out walleyes weren't in the mood for anything fast. We coaxed our jigs along the bottom. When a walleye hit, it was a glurp, not a thunk. We'd let the jig settle to give the fish time. Even then we missed plenty of hits.
I led the league in misses. At one point, Paulley and I had nearly simultaneous hits, but only he landed his fish.
"We could have had a double if someone else had gotten his," Murphy hooted. "Not mentioning any names."
But we had plenty of chances. During the morning, we caught 25 walleyes and released all but four that were legal to keep. In one stretch, we caught walleyes measuring 21, 201/2, 191/2, 161/2, 22, 19, 15, 21, 19 and 23 inches. Murphy caught the 23-incher.
While eaters were hard to come by, it was good to see all of those nice females. They are evidence that the slot limit is working to keep the fishery healthy. Murphy knows. He fishes it most of the summer.
"I don't think there are more walleyes over 26 inches," he said, "but later in the summer, I think we're getting more walleyes than we used to."
We caught all of our fish along two stretches of shoreline on Cut Foot Sioux Lake, using chartreuse/white/orange jigs tipped with spottail shiners or rainbow chubs. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had closed all of the Cut Foot Sioux flowage upstream from Williams Narrows temporarily to protect concentrations of spawning and just-spawned walleyes.
Murphy and Paulley greeted old friends in other boats as we trolled by. Pods of 30 and 40 boats gathered just below the narrows or elsewhere on McAvity Bay. Out at The Gap, where Cut Foot flows into Big Winnie, the boats were so thick that from a distance they appeared to be an archipelago extending from the point.
Everyone we spoke to was happy.
"Go, Wild!" shouted one angler, still high from the hockey team's victory over the Chicago Blackhawks the night before.
Anglers have been venturing out to fish these waters from Williams Narrows Resort since 1920. Joe and Kelli Karau have run the resort for eight years. It was Joe's great-grandfather who once operated a mink farm just up the hill and who opened his camp to guests 94 years ago. That's a lot of walleyes ago.
That's the kind of tradition that makes the fishing opener such a big deal in Minnesota.
Toward midday, we had just been on another run of several walleyes from 19 to 22 inches long. Sunshine warmed our faces. The drone of boats on the move drifted our way. Murphy twitched his jig and took in the sweeping scene.
"Where else would you rather be than right here?" he said.
ABOUT THE GUIDE
Aaron Murphy has been guiding anglers for 22 years in the Grand Rapids/Deer River area. For more information on his guiding service, go to leisureoutdooradventures.com.
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