Got walleyes? The guys on the Island Lake bridge sure do
Anglers gather on the bridge year after year for a very successful opening day tradition.
ON ISLAND LAKE — Imagine an opening day of Minnesota walleye season with no crowded boat landing, no embarrassing trailer backing episodes and no worries if the outboard motor will start.
Throw in a ton of walleyes and northern pike, sprinkle in a few small-mouthed bass, add a tangerine sunrise and enough wind for a walleye chop, and that’s what anglers had on the Island Lake bridge north of Duluth on Saturday.
As trucks buzzed past, pulling boat trailers to points farther up the road, anglers here started catching fish before sunrise and were still doing pretty well late into the morning.
“I worked until like 4 a.m., but I wouldn’t miss this for the world, not the opener,” said Andy Dargatz of Duluth as he released a walleye just a little too big to keep on Island Lake.
Dargatz was fishing with Cory Leejoice of Cloquet, and they ran into longtime opening day bridge buddy Tony Fillman, some of the annual bridge crew that greet each other with smiles and stories from the past year.
“Both Cory and I have nice boats at home in the garage, but we come to the bridge on opening day,’’ Dargatz said with a smile.
Mark Wiarda could nearly cast a jig into the St. Louis River Estuary from his house in Oliver, just outside Superior. But he comes to the Island Lake bridge on opening day to avoid the crowds, both at the boat ramp and on the river.
“I don’t like the rat race down there this time of year. Let it thin out a little and I’ll go later,’’ Wiarda said. “The older I get the less I seem to like being around people.”
If you were able to get out of the persistent east wind, and much of the bridge was partially sheltered from it Saturday morning, the sunshine made it feel almost summer-like, with temperatures near 60 degrees under a partly cloudy sky. That’s another reason Wiarda decided to put some miles between his opening day fishing hole and Lake Superior, where the wind chill was quite a bit cooler Saturday.
On Island Lake, special regulations require that all walleyes between 15 and 20 inches be released, part of an effort to see if the lake can grow bigger walleyes. But the rules let you keep up to 10 walleye daily, with one of those over 20 inches long. Many fish caught Saturday were in that 15-20-inch slot and had to be tossed back. But anglers still caught plenty of 12-14-inch keepers, too, along with several over 20 inches.
“These are actually the perfect size to eat, my favorite,’’ Fillman said as he removed the hook from a 14-inch walleye that he kept to eat. “This is going to be a good day, a good few days here, because the ice came out so late this spring. The walleyes are still coming through here like crazy.”
Cory Wilander of Superior and his dad, Troy, were doing pretty well for themselves on the upwind side of the bridge, with Cory having a hot hand most of the morning. That included multiple 12-14-inchers he had on a stringer along with one walleye about 22 inches long.
“Normally I wouldn’t keep one this big but, with the slot size here, you never know if you will get enough for a meal,’’ Wilander said.
But he didn’t need to worry. His group ended up with enough walleye on the stringer for a big fish fry. The group included Stephen Gee of Duluth, who also landed a 22-incher.
“They’re going good,’’ Gee noted of the fish.
Gee landed a plump 17-incher a little later, with some groaning from others because it had to be released. But Gee was still happy. Those are the kind of walleyes that anglers across Minnesota were looking for on opening day, the kind of walleyes you wouldn’t mind catching all day long.
“Absolutely,’’ Gee said.
Just down the bridge, Wiarda was adding yet another small walleye to his fish basket, which he tethered to a thick rope and lowered 20 feet over the bridge railing and into the lake, keeping his catch quite fresh.
“Two more and I can go home and get something done,” Wiarda said as he neared his 10-walleye limit by about 9 a.m. “But I don’t want to go home too soon. This is a good day to be alive ... I guess they all are. But some are better than others. And this is one of those.”