CRANE LAKE, Minn. -- Given the rain and snow that slanted sideways in this part of northern Minnesota last Friday, Saturday's emergence as a promising day to begin the state's fishing season seemed unlikely. But there it was at dawn Saturday, a clear sky, with breezes too gentle to ruffle even the needles of the red and white pines that bracket the shorelines of this stunningly beautiful border lake. All who awakened here took note of the weather change, and were thankful.
We had gathered for walleyes, a brave bunch of us who had ignored saner voices warning that the state's northernmost waters would be ice-covered on opening day.
And some waters were largely still frozen, Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods among them, as well as certain lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
But Crane had unshackled itself of winter at midweek, setting the stage for visitors on Saturday who wanted to open their cabins, catch a meal of fresh walleye, or simply kick back and forget the world's grander concerns.
Common to each was a desire to gather anew atop Quetico-Superior's clear blue waters and hear again the soft tremolo of loons, while wetting a line.
"Ready to head out?" John Weyrauch asked.
This was just after 7 Saturday morning, and we were at the dock of Nelson's Resort, our weekend headquarters.
I hadn't slept well, and had been up for hours. Now, finally, we were going to try our luck.
In our bunch, gathered in three craft, were John and his wife, Jodi, as well as Tom and Nancy Ellsworth. Also along were Joe Hermes, Joe Sperber and Steve Vilks.
Turning the key on my boat's dashboard, I heard the outboard that hung astern crackle to life.
Just like that, summer was off and running.
In our little flotilla, John and Jodi commanded one boat, the two Joes and Steve another, and Tom and Nancy fished with me.
The Gorge would be our first stop, the name given to the grand spillway that awaits the Vermilion River as it empties into Crane Lake.
Always popular on opening day, the Gorge invites both expert and novice anglers, and often treats them equally.
Ultimately, the number of fish caught there depends on whether it holds sizable numbers of pre-spawn or post-spawn walleyes. Most years the latter are fairly evident and hanging around, at least for a few days.
But some years the spawn occurs early and the fish are gone. And even if they are present, they can be fickle, and bite or don't for reasons unknown.
"If you and Nancy are going to use Lindy Rigs, I'll use a jig," I said to Tom.
The morning was still cold when we arrived at the Gorge, and each of us was bundled in layers.
Perhaps 20 other boats soon gathered in the general area, each fishing in water 11 to 14 feet deep.
Only 20 minutes passed before the tug that is specific to walleyes inhaling a bait was transmitted through my line, to my rod, and to my right hand.
I was using a minnow -- a rainbow chub -- for bait, and I quickly set the hook.
As swiftly, whatever had taken my bait protested with a head shake and escape attempt, followed by another and another.
"I'll be needing the net," I said.
On Crane, walleyes that can be kept must be under 17 inches. The fish I was fighting would be longer than that, and when it finally surfaced, still drawing my rod into a deep bow, it appeared much longer -- perhaps 25 inches.
Unknown at the time was whether that fish portended a daylong monsterfest for our group, as has occurred on previous openers on Crane, one hawg being caught, followed by another and another.
But Saturday didn't unfold that way. Plenty of big fish were caught -- Jodi hooked the largest in our group, at 27 inches, and Steve lost a similar-sized walleye at the boat -- but one didn't follow immediately after another.
Instead, we boated an outsized walleye here, another there, pretty much all day long -- with the day's final trophy caught by Nancy, a 23-incher.
Interspersed among these, we piecemealed a stringer of keeper walleyes sufficient to provide the main course of a fish fry Saturday night.
Not on our menu was an approximately 75-pound sturgeon caught by my nephew, Brian Anderson.
Brian and his wife, Katie, along with his dad (my brother), Dick, and mother, Patti, also fished Crane on Saturday, staying at their cabin on the lake.
"It took me about 25 minutes, but I got it in the boat," Brian said, adding that the sturgeon was quickly released.
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