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Walleyes make Wisconsin fishing opener worth the wait

As Bunker the golden retriever looks on, the Zich family of Couderay fishes for walleyes on the West Fork of the Chippewa River, part of the Chippewa Flowage, during the Wisconsin inland fishing opener on Saturday. Joni Zich (foreground) caught a 28- or 29-inch walleye early in the day. She was fishing with her husband, Mark (right), and son, Justin. (Sam Cook / / 6
Jarrid Houston of South Range shows off a 20-inch walleye he caught early Saturday on the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward during the Wisconsin inland fishing opener. (Sam Cook / / 6
Jigs and minnows produced most of the walleyes on Saturday morning on the Chippewa Flowage. Matt Stewart of South Range caught this 16-inch walleye. (Sam Cook / / 6
Carsten Petersen of Whitehall, Wis., caught this nice walleye from the dock at Musky Tale Resort on the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward on Saturday morning during the Wisconsin fishing opener. (Musky Tale Resort photo)4 / 6
Jarrid Houston nets a walleye for his friend Matt Stewart on the Chippewa Flowage on Saturday morning during the Wisconsin inland fishing opener. Both are from South Range. (Sam Cook / / 6
Boats crowd a widening in the West Fork of the Chippewa River on Saturday morning during the Wisconsin inland fishing opener near Hayward. (Sam Cook / / 6

HAYWARD — Fifteen fishing boats bobbed in close quarters on the West Fork of the Chippewa River early Saturday morning. The crowded conditions should have come as no surprise. Open water was hard to find anyplace else in Northwestern Wisconsin on the state’s inland fishing opener.

Matt Stewart and Jarrid Houston, both of South Range, flipped jigs and minnows into the water alongside a quick current coming out of a narrows on the river.

“All right,” said Stewart, 33. “We are fishing.”

That must have been the overriding sentiment among the well-bundled anglers who gathered on this neck of the fabled Chippewa Flowage near Hayward on Saturday.

Fishing open water. Again. Finally.

The temperature was 41, and a stiff wind blew intermittently. It was a stocking-cap-and-gloves morning early on. But when Houston, 32, set his hook into a plump 20-inch walleye, the cold and a week’s worth of spitting rain and intermittent snows all melted away. Stewart deftly netted the fish for him. Houston admired the handsome walleye briefly, then gave it back to the river.

The two anglers and several friends planned to have a fish fry this evening, but only smaller walleyes would be invited.

This spring, like last year, most Northwestern Wisconsin lakes remained at least partially ice-covered when walleyes became legal to catch on Saturday. Many were covered with black and rotting ice that looked as if it could dissolve at any time. But most of it didn’t go in time for the opener. Anglers had to drive south or, presumably, wait a few days.

On the Chippewa Flowage, which also remained partially ice-covered, the opener evolved into the nicest day in a long time, with a rare appearance by the sun and a high in the 50s. The water itself remained cool. Stewart had verified that the evening before at the Musky Tale Resort just downriver. To raise money for charity, he had plunged headfirst into the 38-degree river.

“It took my breath away,” Stewart said. “I turned around and swam to shore as fast as I could. I thought I was going to stop breathing.”

The walleyes, somewhat better adapted to the conditions, were on their way back to the main body of the Chippewa Flowage after spawning upstream. While the fishing wasn’t fast, it was steady enough to keep the flotilla of boats anchored close together. Stewart took a 16-inch walleye at mid-morning, and it was destined for the frying pan. Joni Zich of Couderay, Wis., caught a whopping 28- or 29-inch walleye early in the day. That was one of four walleyes she and her husband, Mark, and son, Justin, caught. Tim Ahlgren of Osceola, Wis., put a 14-inch walleye in the live well while fishing with Eric Holl and John Kolthoff of Duluth.

A soft patter of conversation drifted among the boats. Occasionally, two anglers would get hung up in a boat-to-boat line tangle, but nobody was fussing. Because everybody was just happy to be fishing.

Elsewhere, Superior’s Pete Brzezinski and friends Robert Zubke of Lake Nebagamon and Nick Nelson of Grantsburg, Wis., caught a three-person limit of walleyes from 15 to 22 inches long on lakes in Polk and St. Croix counties, Brzezinski said.

Jigs and minnows seemed to be producing all of the walleyes on the Chippewa Flowage. Houston tried a night crawler for a while and found it the perfect bait for catching suckers. He switched back to minnows.

Mostly, they sat on plush boat seats and lifted 1/8-ounce jigs slowly, gazing at bare ground in the woods and blue water all around.

“Good to be back on the open water again, huh?” Houston said to Stewart.

“Yeah,” his friend responded.

The words carried more meaning than they might have implied. The opener is always a long-awaited and much-appreciated day in northern Wisconsin, but it seemed to carry even more significance this year, after a long and punishing winter.

The fact that the walleyes showed up too was just a bonus.

To learn more

Jarrid Houston and Matt Stewart of South Range both are fishing guides with Houston’s Guide Service. Reach them at, (218) 393-4962 or on Facebook at “Houston’s Guide Service.”