Dokken: Fishing opener on Lake of the Woods might have been cold, but at least it was windy
The action last Saturday was fair – no surprise, considering the weather – but it was good enough to keep things interesting.
ZIPPEL BAY STATE PARK, Minn. – We weren’t sure we were even going to make the trip to Lake of the Woods for this year’s Minnesota fishing opener until just a few days before the big event, when it became apparent the weather wouldn’t be an absolute washout.
Foiled by weather at almost every turn since the calendar turned to 2022, we had decided to take the wait-and-see approach this time around. The weather last Saturday wasn’t great by any means, but it was tolerable.
More accurately, it might have been cold and rainy, but at least it was windy. Lack of a “walleye chop” certainly wouldn’t be a problem.
And so it was that four of us – Jason Laumb, Brad Durick, Brad’s son Braden, 12, and myself – dropped our jigs into Lake of the Woods shortly before 10 a.m. last Saturday after making the 3-hour drive from Grand Forks.
There was cause for optimism. As we were driving through Zippel Bay State Park on our way to the boat ramp, I got a message from a fishing guide friend who was on the water just out from the mouth of Zippel Bay in about 20 feet of water.
“Caught seven, kept three and a 23-inch slot in the first hour or so,” his message read, slot referring to a walleye in the 19½- to 28-inch protected range that must be released on Lake of the Woods. “You must be getting close.”
Indeed we were.
The ride from the ramp and through the bay onto the lake wasn’t far, and Laumb barely had a chance to get his sparkly-blue Yar-Craft 209 fishing boat, dubbed the “SS Sasquatch,” up on plane before we reached our fishing spot.
The excitement of opening day never gets old, and the anticipation of what might be lurking below was palpable as Laumb turned the bow of the boat into the wind and hit the switch to lower the trolling motor that would hold us in place as if we were anchored.
The water temperature was 48 degrees, and the walleyes were apt to still be a bit sluggish after spawning. Using a slow, steady cadence, we bounced colorful jigs tipped with fathead minnows a few inches off the bottom in 20 feet of water.
Lift, hold, drop.
Lift, hold, drop.
Over and over and over.
Compared with other fishing openers in the past decade, Zippel Bay was new water for us. Most years, we spend the opening weekend anchored a few miles upstream from the mouth of the Rainy River or just past the mouth in Four-Mile Bay or Lighthouse Gap of Lake of the Woods.
This year, the Rainy River is absolutely screaming after recent heavy rains, and our traditional fishing spots weren’t fishable as a result. Sturgeon anglers, we’d heard, were using up to 14 ounces of weight to keep their bait on the bottom, and the high flows from the Rainy River also had muddied up adjacent areas of Lake of the Woods.
Zippel Bay, a few miles to the west, seemed like the best option for escaping the fast current and turbid water. Judging by the full parking lot at the ramp, plenty of other anglers had the same idea, but it didn’t take long for Durick to launch Laumb’s boat and find a parking spot along the road just past the ramp.
This year’s opener was different in other ways, as well. Most years, we rent a cabin for three nights and make a weekend of it, but when one of the regulars in our crew couldn’t make it this year because of a conference in Florida, we decided to dial back our opening plans.
Durick and his son were willing replacements. A Red River catfish guide, Durick most springs would be chasing catfish by now, but that’s on hold until flooding subsides and conditions improve.
Fishing Lake of the Woods in open water would be a first for both Duricks, whose previous walleye fishing experience on the big lake was limited to ice fishing.
The action last Saturday was fair – no surprise, considering the weather – but it was good enough to keep things interesting. The walleyes bit best between squalls, and most were either too big or too small to keep. That being said, I’ll never complain about the 25- and 27½-inch walleyes I released during a blustery fishing opener on Lake of the Woods.
Both walleyes absolutely slammed my jig.
Rough estimate, the four of us caught maybe 15 walleyes, kept three and missed several others. Chances are good we would have caught enough for a fish fry that night, but the batteries for Laumb’s 36-volt trolling motor, which was cranked up on high to hold us in the stiff wind, gave up the ghost about 4 p.m. so we called it a day and headed for the cabin we’d rented at the last minute at Sportsman’s Lodge.
We didn’t catch enough keepable-size walleyes for a fish fry that night, and so we dined on “shame burgers” at Ballard’s Resort. Walleye they weren’t, but they definitely were tasty.
It wasn’t the best opener ever, but it wasn’t the worst, either. We got out fishing, we caught some fish, had some laughs and made the best of the hand Mother Nature dealt us.
Sometimes, that’s good enough.