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GARRISON, Minn. — “Fish on!” someone hollered. A dinner bell clanged, signaling one of 20 anglers on the 50-foot launch had hooked one. Guide and boat captain Greg Eno scrambled for a landing net.

“Oh, it’s a big one,” an angler shouted, seeing Jay Maher’s rod bent in half. After a couple hours of fishing on a choppy Lake Mille Lacs Wednesday evening, the group had landed several small walleyes and keeper-sized perch. But Maher had something much bigger.

While fellow anglers ooed and aahed, Eno netted  a 27¾-inch walleye.

“You don’t get a fish like that every day,” said a grinning Maher, 49, holding his trophy for photos before slipping it back into the lake.

Nor do you often get to catch a dandy fish with a crowd of onlookers to congratulate you.

But this is launch fishing, and it’s something special. The ingredients: a good-humored group of souls, wide-ranging in age and experience. Add one of the nation’s great walleye fisheries. Stir in a mild, clear-skied spring evening with a classic ‘walleye chop’ rocking the boat. Top it off with some classic ’70s rock music playing on the radio.

The result: a fishing experience unlike any other.

“You don’t have to trailer a boat, they provide the rods and bait, they treat you like royalty — and where else can you go on a fishing trip for less than $100?” said Tony Boys, 55, of Minneapolis, who was fishing with his wife, Royce, and two friends. For years he used to fish Mille Lacs with his dad, but the trips ended when his dad passed away. Now Tony has returned, choosing to go out in a launch operated by Twin Pines Resort near Garrison. This was his third outing.

“We limited out on a trip last fall,” he said.

Though the fishing was relatively slow Wednesday night — Boys caught a walleye and a jumbo perch — he wasn’t disappointed.

“Does it get any better than watching the sun go down over the water?” he said.

The allure is simple

Launches long have been a common sight on Mille Lacs, and perhaps 30 or so ply the lake each summer. While the size, style and amenities vary, for anglers the allure is the same.

“People are just looking to go out fishing with family, friends or groups as an outing,” said Bill Eno, who, with his wife, Linda, have owned Twin Pines Resort on the west shore of Mille Lacs for 16 years. They run two launches.

“You don’t have to own your own boat and all that goes with it. You simply pay your $35 and walk on,” he explained. “You bring your snacks and drinks. There’s a bathroom on board. You don’t have to bring your equipment. It’s very easy.”

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Older and younger anglers find the access convenient. And there’s the social aspect.

“Everyone has fun,” Eno said. “If you have two people in a boat, and you catch two fish over a four-hour period, that’s two catches you experience. But if you have 20 people on a launch, and everyone catches one fish, that’s 20 catches. And even though you’re not catching them all, you share the ... excitement of catching fish.”

That was the case Wednesday evening. It was an eclectic group, with three anglers from Nebraska and two from Florida. Nine were women. Though some anglers caught nothing, there were plenty of hoots and whoops whenever someone hooked a fish.

Maher and his buddy Brad Otremba, 51, have been coming to Mille Lacs to fish from a launch for 15 years.

“It’s comfortable and you don’t have to worry about getting tossed around on the lake (in a smaller boat),” Maher said. “This really takes the hassle out of it.”

“Hallelujah!”

We departed the Twin Pines dock at 6 p.m. and returned promptly at 10 p.m. (A night fishing ban prohibits angling after 10 p.m. until June 13.) The group boated 18 walleyes. Half were released because of the lake’s 18- to 28-inch protected slot limit. Possession limit is four, with one fish over 28 inches allowed. They also kept four eating-size perch.

“We’ve had better nights, but that’s fishing,” said Greg Eno. The next night, five anglers caught 18 walleyes and kept 14, he said.

Martha Kooiman was fishing with her mom, Margaret, 86, and dad, Harold, 87. Her brother and sister-in-law were along, too.

“We had never tried a launch and heard good things,” Martha said. Around 8:30, something hit Margaret Kooiman’s leech.

“Fish on!” she shouted as her rod bent toward the water. The bell clanged and, after reeling the fish to the boat, guide Mike Gannon netted her 23-inch walleye.

Her eyes lit up and she grinned like a kid at Christmas.

“Woo-hoo,” she shouted. “Hallelujah! Not bad for an 86-year-old!”

Not bad at all.

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