LAKE MILLE LACS — It was the eve of the eve of the firearms deer hunting opener and Gary Roach — “Mr. Walleye” — was doing what he does most every state “holiday” — fishing for walleyes.
But this time of year, thoughts of walleyes start giving way to visions of whitetails. Even for “Mr. Walleye.” Or “Walleyedan.” Or most anyone who has made a name for themselves fishing in these parts.
That’s what happens when the other state holiday rolls around. The walleye opener, of course, kicks off those state holidays in Minnesota every May. The firearms deer hunting opener was Saturday.
On Thursday, a near-perfect November day on Lake Mille Lacs, Roach was pounding the walleyes with longtime friend and fellow fishing professional Steve Bissett. For the most part, it was the only boat in sight from mid-morning to early afternoon. On nearby Highway 169, vehicle after vehicle — most with trailers in tow — motored along the lake toward Garrison and the Brainerd lakes area.
“Look at all of them. And with all the trailers. And it’s still two days before the opener,” said Bissett, who doesn’t hunt the firearms deer season but hopes to get out during the ongoing archery season. Dan “Walleyedan” Eigen, another prominent area fishing personality, still dabbles in walleye fishing this time of year, but also has turned his attention to the archery hunt.
“They’re probably looking out here and see one little boat and are saying, ‘Look at those dummies. It’s deer hunting season,” Roach said of the drivers of those vehicles on Highway 169.
And, for Roach, that next day kicked off the deer hunting season. On Friday, he planned to head to his land and deer camp near Emily to prep for a season that will see four generations of Roaches hunting together — about seven or eight hunters, he figured.
For Roach, the firearms deer hunting opener is at least as big a deal as the walleye opener.
“The fishing opener is great, but with the hunting opener there’s not so many people around,” Roach said. “I enjoy that, too.
“The first morning I get everyone up at 5 a.m. After that I don’t care. And there’s no using ATVs to get to the stands. You have to walk to the stands,” Roach said of his efforts to keep the hunts traditional. “And (after the hunt) we have a big campfire and the guys will drink a few beers. And everyone brings a meal. It’s like a family get-together.
Roach was excited about bringing moose tenderloin from a recent successful hunt in Canada. And it’s probably not unusual to find some form of cooked walleye at the Roach camp. He had plenty of fresh walleye Thursday — he and Bissett each caught their limit of four nice-sized slot walleyes.
“I’ve got to burn the rest of the gas out of the boat,” Roach said with a laugh of his reasoning for fishing on the eve of the eve of the hunting opener. “But I’ll probably go (fishing) until I can’t anymore.”
As in when the lakes freeze over.
Yes, while his focus will be on hunting rather than fishing for the next few weeks, Roach is looking forward to the possibility of doing both this November.
“One year I went out and hunted and got a buck and a bonus doe, and then I saw three grouse and shot a couple of them and went fishing and got a bunch of walleyes,” Roach said.