Northern exposure: Relatively speaking, trout angler makes himself at home in the walleye world
DEER RIVER — Clearly, this was the place to be. Fourteen fishing boats trolled in close quarters on Bowstring Lake north of Deer River. Ours was one of them on this idyllic morning in early June.
A guy in the next boat wore a chartreuse T-shirt that read: "IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU'RE FISHING TOO CLOSE."
He had chosen the wrong day to wear it. At any given time, unapologetic anglers in two or three other boats probably could have read it.
All of us were trolling or jigging for a bunch of young walleyes that had been hanging out among the rocks and sand that stretched for about 300 yards in this part of the lake.
"They're all cut out of the same mold," said Grand Rapids fishing guide Reed Ylitalo. "All mostly between 13 and 15 inches."
We could have gone elsewhere to catch and release larger walleyes, but we were thinking that a fish fry that night would be good. Ylitalo knew we could probably accomplish that with these young and innocent Bowstring walleyes.
They were fairly eager biters, especially if you were enticing them with 1/8th-ounce jigs and spottail shiner minnows. That's what Ylitalo, sole proprietor of Wings and Walleyes Guide Service, had recommended based on his success the previous day.
North to walleyes
One of his clients on this outing was some guy from Kansas who had never fished for walleyes before in his life. He was an accomplished fly-fisher and had spent a lot of time tossing flies to rainbows and brown trout on streams in Montana and Wyoming. But he had called me a while back and said he wanted to come north and catch a walleye. I figured, sure. I could probably do that for my brother, Jim Cook, 66, of Leawood, Kan.
Ylitalo, 31, has been guiding anglers and waterfowl hunters since he was 22. When we had arrived on Bowstring, he inserted his 20-foot Alumacraft into the flotilla of boats and eased us into the loose rotation. It must have been at least 30 seconds before Ylitalo swung the first adolescent walleye aboard. It was maybe a 14-incher.
Bowstring holds larger walleyes, Ylitalo said. But they are outnumbered severely by this healthy year class of precocious walleyes.
"There are probably bigger ones here," Ylitalo said, "but those little ones are so aggressive."
Jigging our shiners in about 20 feet of water, we took turns setting hooks on hungry walleyes, pesky northern pike and several plump perch. We were eager for a fish dinner, but we did have some pride. We would keep walleyes from 14 to 16 inches long but turn back anything 13 or under.
Ylitalo managed to fish as he weaved us through boat traffic plenty close for boat-to-boat conversation. The three of us used different colors of jigs, which seemed to make little difference. I asked Ylitalo if, in his experience, jig color makes a difference to fish.
He has experimented with that on occasion, he said, switching everyone on his boat to a jig color that seemed to be hot for one angler.
"I've proved myself right, and I've proved myself wrong," he said of those experiments.
His final answer: "I don't know."
If you wanted to introduce a friend or relative to walleye fishing, this was exactly the kind of day you would order. The sky was blue. The temperature was about 70. Six or seven little clouds drifted about on various quadrants of the horizon. A soft breeze from the southeast ruffled the lake surface. A bald eagle did a fly-by. Why a loon didn't call, I'm not sure.
We sat on overstuffed boat seats twitching our rod tips, waiting for the next suspect. There — that furtive tap, the subtle take — a walleye inhalation. The fish thought it was his lucky day — a hapless spottail shiner happening by. And then, suddenly, the walleye became the latest inductee to the lip-piercing crowd. We caught 24 walleyes in all, and kept 13 among the three of us.
We sat back and told stories and watched other boats. Rock music from a Lund's radio drifted over the water at reasonable volume. We missed a fish now and then, and Ylitalo handed us fresh shiners.
We asked Ylitalo to tell us some guiding stories. He told us about the most boring day he had spent on the water, guiding a salesman who was trying hard to sell two onboard clients waterbeds for their cattle. Ylitalo wasn't kidding. (Go ahead. Google it: "Waterbeds for cattle.")
"They never talked to me all day," he said.
Jim adapted quickly to walleye fishing. He seemed comfortable jigging instead of carving graceful loops of fly line over his head. He caught on quickly to what the delicate take of a walleye felt like. He had no problem putting fish in the live well instead of watching them regain their freedom.
Ylitalo added another chapter to Jim's northern Minnesota fishing sampler that afternoon. We went to another lake, where we dangled crappie minnows in pencil reeds over sandy shallows. There, male crappies were staking out spawning beds, waiting for mama crappies to come in and deposit eggs. We caught just enough crappies so the walleyes wouldn't feel lonely in the frying pan.
Jim and his wife, Cindy, were staying at Bill and Gail Heig's Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish. Upon Bill Heig's recommendation, we took one bag of the day's fillets and drove a few miles to the Gosh Dam Place, the iconic restaurant that will take your fillets and prepare you a classic Minnesota shore lunch or dinner — crisp walleyes, Gosh Dam fries, regular fries, coleslaw and baked beans.
Could it get any more Minnesota than that?