WASKISH — Some may have considered them ominous signs. But thoughts of a hooked anchor and a few equally-as-well-hooked sheepshead early on quickly were washed away in a sea of reddish, mostly calm water and a canopy of blue sky.
And, ultimately, a table-full of fried walleye fillets.
In a delayed opener for a group of five anglers hailing from fishing locales such as Pequot Lakes and Bemidji, as well as Rogers and West Fargo, N.D., there were visions of a replay of the previous year, when the group — plus a few new faces and minus a few others — nearly limited out each of the two days and landed about 100 walleyes in all.
After a rough 2011 opener across much of Minnesota, summer-like weather extended across the state for the next several days. And by the time these anglers stopped to drop anchor at their first fishing spot on the northeast side of Upper Red Lake on May 17, it was 11:50 a.m., sunny, warm and mostly still.
Maybe too nice for landing walleyes, some in the group may have thought. But just minutes in, one of the fishermen had a good hit. It turned out to be a sheepshead, but the anglers were happy to see a fish on right out of the chute. And minutes later, another fish hit, and then another, and another.
Unfortunately, about three of the first four fish were nuisance sheepshead; the anglers, of course, were there for walleyes, although they’d settle for a famed jumbo Red Lake crappie or trophy pike, too.
And then it hit. One of the anglers reeled wildly, the pole bent to near-breaking, it seemed. He’d stop to give what the anglers guessed was a big pike some line, then reel, let up, reel and so on.
As the wind picked up and shifted, it stretched out the rope to the anchor. Maybe the fish had got caught up in the rope/anchor, the angler thought. But no, the hook alone was caught on the rope and, with a short burst of wind moving the boat back and forth, it may have created the illusion of a big fish on the run. So no big fish to remember, although the short, intense battle of man vs. anchor was captured on video and should live on longer than most fishing memories, if that’s possible.
After that, however, it was walleye after walleye for the group. In about 10 hours of fishing over a day-and-a-half or so, they limited out and again totaled more than 100 walleyes. And while they appeared to have more success than most of the groups around them, limits are more the norm than the exception at Upper Red again already this open-water season.
In recent years, catching walleyes hasn’t been a problem on the lake, which reopened for walleyes in 2006. Catching “keeper” walleyes, however, could be a chore. But these days, slightly more than half the walleye population in Red Lake is under 17 inches (keeper size), lake fisheries types say.
As in the group’s 2010 outing, there were plenty of fish between 17 and 20 inches, too, with a few 20 to 22 inches. But the group of anglers didn’t catch anything bigger than that in 2011. Few do — walleyes over 22 inches are rare in the lake, and while the four-walleye bag limit allows for one fish longer than 26 inches, I’m guessing that very few walleyes that size have been taken from Upper Red in the last three years.
Still, fish in that 17- to 20-inch range are plenty fun to catch — and will make good “eaters” come June 15. That’s when the mid-season slot adjustment kicks in — the third consecutive open-water season with such an adjustment on Upper Red — allowing anglers to keep walleyes up to 20 inches. But those fish between 17 and 20 inches that seemed so numerous in the opening weeks of the season tend to disappear by mid-June. According to the DNR, as the open-water season progresses, catch rates and fishing pressure decline, reducing the impact of harvesting larger walleyes. Hence the adjustment.
But with yellow perch numbers reportedly as strong as ever on Red, explaining the increasingly healthy walleye population, maybe this is the year when catch rates, particularly of walleyes in that 17- to 20-inch range, remain strong through the dog days of summer.
If so, expect that annual early season Upper Red gathering to become at least a biennual open water celebration.
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.