Distracted by gardens and other tasks, we saved our fishing opener for Sunday evening, when we headed to a small lake just inside the Boundary Waters wilderness. Shallow and connected by a river to a couple of good walleye lakes, it’s a good bet early in the season for a mixed bag of northerns, jumbo perch and an occasional walleye.
It was after five when we arrived at the landing. The day was so warm I instinctively expected to be pestered by black flies as we offloaded the canoe and gear, but bugs were nonexistent. Perhaps they haven’t caught up with the early spring. Crossing the first lake, the surrounding hillsides were blushing green as new aspen and birch leaves emerged. Vikki remarked that in some years, the lakes still have ice opening weekend. Normally, green-up arrives closer to Memorial Day.
Slipping down the quick currents of a connecting channel, we reached our destination—a long, narrow lake tucked between pine-clad ridges. We didn’t see any canoes on the water, but someone was poking around at the lake’s lone campsite. Typical of this place, we weren’t alone, but had plenty of elbow room.
Because this lake is so shallow, it soon becomes too weedy to fish. But before the weeds come up it provides good fishing. The best way I’ve found to avoid the weeds and catch fish is to troll a spinner rig baited with a nightcrawler—something all fish in the lake like to eat. Even so, by early June you’ll hook a weed salad on every cast. Then I switch to deeper, less weedy lakes.
A brisk breeze was blowing down the length of the lake, raising a chop that slapped against the canoe. We trolled into the wind, parallel to shoreline. We didn’t go far before Vikki hooked the first fish, a pike that was more axe handle than hammer handle. It was big enough to keep without feeling sheepish for doing so, but she told me to throw it back.
“I don’t like northerns,” she said.
She says this every year, but I know better. In the spring, a fresh, boneless pike filet is just as sweet as a walleye. I threw her northern back, but decided to keep the next one. Instead, I boated a chunky perch, which was unquestionably a keeper. The perch was followed by a decent-sized pike that went into the fish basket. Now we had enough fish for dinner.
The wind made fishing somewhat difficult, but not uncomfortable. Even though the sun was sinking in the sky, the air temperature was surprisingly warm. Once again we remarked on the unusual weather, although we weren’t complaining about it.
We heard distant voices and looked up to see to canoes across the lake, as more anglers showed up for the evening bite. Most likely these late arrivals were somewhere nearby. The only other vehicles in the parking lot at the entry point had ATV trailers. Apparently, no opening weekend canoe trippers had entered the wilderness from there.
I thought about how several Cook County businesses owners had told me the fishing opener no longer was a big deal for them, because the North Shore no longer attracts hordes of anglers. The reasons for this are many, though most notable were the 1978 Boundary Waters wilderness legislation which limited the number of lakes where you can use a fishing boat and motor, the closure of walleye spawning areas once open to fishing and the changing demographics that led to fewer anglers everywhere.
Another factor is the fishing, especially for walleyes, is usually tough up here in mid May. Here, in the coldest, snowiest corner of Minnesota, frigid water temperatures usually chill the spring walleye bite. The trade-off, acceptable to some of us, is great fishing for lake trout, brookies and splake, all of which are active when the water is cold. Trout are available in dozens of North Shore and Boundary Waters lakes. However, since trout in lakes are only found in this far corner of the state, they attract little attention from most Minnesota anglers.
The wind died down as the evening progressed. The fishing action was steady, if not fast. Vikki lost a jumbo perch beside the canoe, but the only other perch we caught were too small to keep. Perhaps this explains why we had frequent strikes, but had trouble hooking the fish. Almost certainly, the big one got away. Vikki had a violent strike and a few seconds of fight before a rambunctious northern sheared off her spinner rig with it sharp teeth.
Our nearest neighbors on the water were a pair of loons. One of them came over and checked us out, surfacing just a few feet from the canoe. As we fished they called to one another, perhaps discussing their fishing success. We just enjoyed the loon music, a welcome sound in May.
The sun was just above the western tree line when we started a final troll back to the channel. Vikki had a strike and her rod bowed from what appeared to be a sizable fish. When she brought it near the boat, I slid the net beneath a chunky walleye. It was a perfect finale to a fine evening. We reeled in and called it quits.
The fish basket was satisfyingly heavy when I hauled it into the boat. Our mixed bag of pike, perch and a lone walleye wouldn’t be worthy of boasting at a Mille Lacs or Winnie dock, but it was good enough for us. We’d have fresh fish for dinner and extra filets to share with my Mom. Best of all, the 2012 fishing season was off to a great start.