Minnesota Fishing Opener from Lake Vermilion

Only in Minnesota is suffering so in fashion

By Staff Writer Dennis Anderson

Published: May 15, 2005
Edition: METRO
Section: SPORTS
Page#: 16C

Poets have written of May that flowers and love alike bloom in this month. Yet anglers who fished giant Lake Vermilion on Saturday, opening day of the state's inland walleye and northern pike seasons, likely encountered neither.
The cold, rain and wind saw to that.
Our bunch had sidled to bed about 11 Friday night, hoping, at the outside, that the persistent drenching that hung low over the northeastern part of the state most of that day would subside by morning.
Or at least that snow wouldn't fall.
Instead, when the alarm rang at 5 a.m. Saturday, the lake surface in front of our cabin lay still dimpled heavy beneath a slanting rain.
So gradually did the morning grow light, the sun seemed reluctant, ashamed or both to fulfill its obligation.
Yet what is a Minnesota fishing opener if not an opportunity for anglers to set themselves apart from the rest of the population - if only by their willingness to suffer so publicly?
Pushing off from our docks were four boats, each with passengers leaning into the cold, teeth clenched.
I guided one craft, Steve Vilks of Stillwater was at the tiller of another, and Bob Kowalski of Vadnais Heights and Dave Kelley of Stillwater captained the remaining two.
Our intent, of course, was no different from that of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who on Saturday headed up the state's annual Governor's Opener.
The governor also was on Vermilion.
The difference was that the governor was on the south side of the lake, doubtless in the skilled hands of a local guide. We were on the north, headquartered at the end of a long road, at Vermilion Dam Lodge.
``It's worth a try,'' Steve said just before we left the cabin, as he and I ran our fingers across a waterproof map of Lake Vermilion, planning our attack.
Initially, we patrolled a point only about a mile from the lodge, trolling in about 12 feet of water.
Most of us employed jigs and minnows, admittedly not an overly creative approach.
But our prey were only fish, and walleyes at that, and part of the process of catching any fish, walleyes especially, is a certain willingness on their part to play the fool, no matter the bait and rig presented.
So while we could have chosen sliding sinker rigs instead of jigs (as we did later in the morning), or even Rapalas or other crankbaits, the best bet, initially, at least on most walleye fishing openers, is to tie on a 99-cent jig, preferably one chartreuse in color, and affix to it a fathead or other minnow.
Assuming a walleye is willing to bite, that should prove attraction enough.
But no fish bit.
Well, OK, a few did.
But basically, as the dark day unfolded, the picture on our end of Vermilion, assuming a certain imagination on the reader's part, was one of fishless boats drifting by one another in the cold rain, with passengers in each saying nothing, only nodding or shrugging.
Finally, at 9 or so, in need of a hot breakfast and the encouragement it would offer, we headed back to the cabin, where Steve's wife, Cindy, Bob's wife, Gina, and my wife, Jan, together with assorted kids who couldn't be tricked into departing the cabin at first light, awaited, essentially bemused.
``Catch anything?''
That was the question.
The answer would have been ``no'' for the bunch of us, had I not acted on a tip from one of the lodge owners, Ed Tausk, and briefly anchored atop the last drift leading to Vermilion Dam itself.
This ploy, fortunately, paid off in the form of two lunker bucketmouth bass, one caught by Clint Vilks, age 12, and the other by my son, Trevor, who will be 12 on Monday.
Bass are legal fare in northeast Minnesota, beginning with Saturday's walleye opener.
Both were taken on Shad Raps.
So, yes we did, we said, we caught something.
And we sat down to breakfast.
All day Saturday, we were out, sometimes one or two boats at a time, other times all four.
The weather never really was acceptable. But neither - and this is the part of the fishing opener that makes it an event unto itself, and a culturally unique one at that - did it seem to keep anyone off the water.
Surely, had the day been sunny and warm, thereby inspiring the aforementioned poets, more anglers would have spent more time on Lake Vermilion.
But the weather notwithstanding, there seemed no shortage of people willing not only to bear the cold and rain, but to grin and bear it.
Jimmy Christesen of Chisago City was one such angler.
Staying also at Vermilion Dam Lodge, Jimmy and a friend began their walleye season at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, and were rewarded a short four minutes later with a 4-pound walleye.
``Took `em trolling a shallow crankbait,'' Jimmy noted.
At day's end Saturday, Jimmy didn't have a lot more than that to show for his efforts.
Nor did I.
My biggest fish of the day weren't even walleyes.
Sneaking back Saturday afternoon to Clint and Trevor's largemouth bass hole, I hooked two bigmouths myself, dandy specimens, both.
A warmup, I hoped, for hotter fishing action to come.
That said, there's only one opening day a year, and that was Saturday.
We didn't fill our livewells, but neither did we stay in the cabin.

Like others in this part of the state, we fished - bent low against the rain as we drifted past other boats, trading nods and shrugs, but saying little.