CRANE LAKE, Minn. — Here on the border between Minnesota and Ontario, Saturday morning broke with all the promise a day could muster. The temperature as the advancing sun bled crimson across the eastern horizon was in the 30s, so this was not summer. Instead it was summer’s precursor, the fishing opener, and John Weyrauch, his wife, Jodi, and I bore the optimism of saints as we clambered into my boat and motored quietly onto this big, glass-flat lake.
We had begun the season here before, but not for a long while under conditions that seemed so uniquely constructed for spring walleye fishing. The ice had gone out early, as it did statewide, and the lake’s fish were long shod of their spawning duties. Walleyes were probably more scattered than they might be in a more average spring. But they were as likely to be out of their post-spawn funks and ready to eat.
Or so we hoped.
“Let’s run up the lake a little and see what we can find,” I said.
Also in our group were Steve Vilks of Naples, Fla., and Joe Hermes of Minneapolis. They had left the dock just ahead of us, and were advancing on the Gorge, a popular Crane Lake opening-day walleye hot spot.
Featuring turbid water and swirling currents, the Gorge is the spillway of the Vermilion River as it empties into Crane Lake, and from there conflates with Namakan Lake, Lake Kabetogema, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods and, ultimately, Hudson Bay.
Easy as it is to pop a boat on plane and venture forth on these vast interconnected waters as if they were being seen for the first time, history demands a more attentive view.
The Ojibwe were among the region’s first inhabitants, then the French voyageurs and later the loggers with their double-bladed axes and horse-drawn sleighs. Because so many who lived in this country also died here and their souls are part of these waters and these lands, on mornings like the one that broke Saturday, acknowledgment of their presence, if only tacit, seemed right.
“Let’s try it here,” I said, and I killed the engine.
John and Jodi quickly opened the bales of their spinning rigs and sent shiner-baited hooks descending to the lake bottom about 14 feet down. Each was fishing with sliding sinkers and 6-foot-long snells that John had tied himself. Their hooks were red with no adornments.
I, on the other hand, favor bling on my walleye rigs, and slid into the chilled water a snell festooned with a gold blade and red and green beads, a real Christmas tree.
Fishing as we were for fun, we also were intent on securing dinner.
Usually on the opener we have a party of some 20 anglers and hangers-on, also a dog or two, the latter the best behaved of the bunch.
Because of weddings and graduations, attendees at our traditional opening day fish fry would number only 10: John, Jodi, Steve, Joe and me, as well as my brother, Dick, his wife, Patti, their son, Brian, Brian’s wife Katie, and Brian and Katie’s 2-year-old daughter, Hadley.
Dick and Pattie have a cabin on Crane Lake. They, along with Brian and Katie, also would fish for our Saturday dinner.
True believers in our persistence, if not our skills, we believed we would catch enough to eat. But just in case, we had six racks of smoked ribs as a backup.
Our first two fish came at once.
Jodi hooked a 16-inch walleye, playing it deftly to the boat, while I landed a 12-inch crappie.
“A good start,” John said.
This was in a little hideaway of a cove that routinely receives no second notice from other anglers. The bottom there can be snaggy, and sometimes what feels like the tug of a walleye can instead be the pull of a rock or buried tree limb claiming your hook, line and sinker.
Yet occasionally a walleye comes knocking.
And, as was the case Saturday, knocking and knocking.
“There’s another one,” John said.
He and I had picked up rainbow and shiner minnows on the way north, and the fish that was bending John’s rod into a loopy U shape had taken a rainbow.
This was at 6:30, the morning just begun.
So it went until we had caught a dozen walleyes, keeping eight (the Crane Lake limit is four, with a 17- to-28-inch protected slot). Steve and Joe had similar results, with eight walleyes boated.
Then, having been on the water already four hours, the five of us angled back to our weekend headquarters, Nelson’s Resort, breaking there for breakfast in that establishment’s restaurant.
Our walleye dinner secured, we fished Saturday afternoon for fun and more fun, the day’s early promise well fulfilled.