Joe Hagen was still smiling on Tuesday from the monster walleye he caught Sunday, so the fact the fish weren’t biting much on Tuesday wasn’t bothering him.

“That’s my biggest walleye ever,’’ Hagen said of the 29-inch beauty he landed in Twin Ports harbor — officially Superior Bay — about a quarter-mile off Park Point.

Hagen, of Duluth, was jigging a minnow when the big girl hit hard, and he nearly lost his cell phone.

“I was on the phone, of course, when she smacked it,’’ he said. His buddy, Tyler Radke of Duluth snapped a few photos and the walleye was released to swim away.

Joe Hagen holds the 29-inch walleye he caught and released Sunday (Photo courtesy of Tyler Radke)
Joe Hagen holds the 29-inch walleye he caught and released Sunday (Photo courtesy of Tyler Radke)

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So far this season it’s been a good run on these migratory walleyes in the lower reaches of the St. Louis River near where it flows into Lake Superior.

“It’s been pretty steady. Some big walleyes … and some nice sturgeon,’’ said Scott Johanik of Duluth, who guides under the name Reel North Outdoors. “So far 26 (inches) is our biggest walleye.”

Johanik, already on his eighth trip out on the harbor ice in December, seemed even more excited over the number of smaller fish being caught — those below the 15-inch minimum allowed for keepers on the lower St. Louis River system.

“We’ve been seeing lots of 12-to-14 inchers, which is a good thing for this fishery,’’ he said, noting there had been concerns that not enough young fish were growing in the river in recent years. “Those are our future big fish.”

Early anglers started hitting the harbor ice, and not much of it, more than two weeks ago. As of Tuesday there was anywhere from 6 to 12 inches of ice on various parts of the harbor, except where the Coast Guard Cutter Alder and last few Great Lakes freighters of the season were still keeping shipping lanes open. Anglers have been staying well clear of those areas.

Most of the anglers in recent days — and there have been hundreds on the weekends and holidays — are fishing areas between 6 and 10 feet deep and at least several hundreds yards off shore. Most harbor anglers are saying early and late light, at sunrise and sunset, seems to be best for walleye. But Radke and Hagen noted they have had good runs near noon, too.

The veterans say they like to aggressively jig noisy spoons, especially rattling lures, and it’s even better if they glow in the harbor’s root beer-colored waters. Many anglers add a minnow head for scent and added action.

“They really seem to want aggressive jigging this year,’’ said Jason Haydon of Hermantown.

Haydon has been on layoff from his job as a construction laborer. He goes back to work Jan. 4 with mixed feelings.

“It’s been a good couple of weeks on the bay,’’ he noted. “I’ve been out here a lot.”

Jason Haydon (left) and Steven MacMillan pack up after fishing on Superior Bay Tuesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Jason Haydon (left) and Steven MacMillan pack up after fishing on Superior Bay Tuesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

On the other end of the spectrum, most groups also have at least one “dead stick’’ rig out, a whole minnow swimming freely on a hook that is simply left alone, maybe under a bobber.

Picking a perfect depth to fish in may be less important than trying to stay away from noisy crowds and setting your lure apart from all the other presentations the fish are seeing dangling under the ice.

“I’ve been finding most of my success setting up in waters that are 5-7 feet deep. No particular rhyme or reason why one spot is better than another,’’ said Jarrid Houston, fishing guide and News Tribune fishing columnist. “What is far more important is isolating yourself from other anglers, keeping quiet and utilizing presentation techniques that others are not. These fish have been especially pressured now, so it is key to think outside the box. Using exotic color patterns and custom type baits, and swinging different jigging cadences, becomes all that more important.”

Studies using tagged fish, and others that traced what forage fish the walleyes eat over their lives, showed these walleyes spend a surprisingly large portion of their lives in Lake Superior, especially the larger fish. Biologists measured stable isotopes to determine exactly what type of food the fish had consumed (Lake Superior smelt vs. river shiners, for instance.) They found small walleye spend most of their time in the river and medium-size fish split their time about evenly. Walleye tagged while spawning in the river have later been caught as far away as the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, more than 250 miles away.

But they still get the urge to spawn where they came from, and nearly all of them head back up the St. Louis River to go as far as they can upstream — just below the Fond du Lac Dam — where they will lay or fertilize eggs sometime in late April or early May.

Like in any major river system, some of those pre-spawn fish will start the trek in autumn, some may start moving into the river system — including the harbor — over winter, while some may wait until spring to head upstream. Fisheries experts for the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of natural resources estimate about 50,000 walleyes annually move into the river at peak. That’s down from about 80,000 estimated in past decades, but still enough to keep many anglers happy.

“This is really an awesome fishery,’’ Radke said of the lower St. Louis. “You can drive three hours to Red Lake or whatever and not have any better fishing than here ... Or you can get skunked there just as easily as here.”