Tyler Erickson and his crew claimed their favorite spot along a sandy bank of the St. Louis River in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood plenty early for Saturday’s Minnesota fishing opener.
Early as in the day before.
They had lawn chairs, sleeping bags and several fishing rods propped up against logs — and by 9 a.m. the group had a couple stringers loaded with fat, green walleyes tied to shore.
It pays to be early.
“I haven’t slept since 11 a.m. Friday,’’ Erickson said as he stuck a 23-inch walleye, caught by Ray Roberts, on the stringer. That was 9 a.m. Saturday. “We’ve been out here all night. But it’s worth it for this spot.”
The Duluth-area gang were casting out crawlers and minnows and letting them sink to the bottom in the current, then waiting for a twitch of the rod tip. They were getting lots of twitches. While some fish, others in the group stoked a small bonfire they had kept going all night. There were remnants of their campout strewn about — a charred-black coffee pot, half a bag of meat sticks and empty cans of Mountain Dew Ice and Mich Golden.
“There’s another one!” Erickson exclaimed as another member of their group ran to grab the quivering rod, set the hook and reel-in a 17-inch walleye.
A constant parade of fishing boats was moving up and down the river in front of the shorefishing gang but it’s hard to believe any of them were having much better luck.
The Minnesota walleye fishing opener (OK, pike and other fish are fair game, too, but who’s counting) broke cool and clear in Duluth, temperatures just above freezing along the river as most of a full moon still shone in the western sky.
“I’ve got my good ice fishing pants on,’’ said Carrie Groth of Sawyer. She was at Boy Scout Landing with her husband Dale and daughter, Alanna, launching their boat. “We’re going to come back around 10 and pick up our grandson when it warms up a little.”
The sun was poking through a few clouds by mid-morning, just powerful enough now, almost mid-May, to offer some welcome warmth.
Farther up-river, Justin McGuire and Kody Katzmarek had anchored their Lund as far upstream as legally possible — nearly under the Highway 23 bridge. (The river above the bridge is off limits for fishing to start the season to protect spawning walleyes.)
The duo from South Range got to their favorite spot at 5:30 a.m. and had landed "a bunch" of fish by 8. They were casting jigs tipped with minnows downstream of the boat and then waiting for the telltale bite. After landing another 18-incher they were thinking about pulling up anchor and heading to shore to start their traditional opening day fish-fry with the four walleyes they had in the livewell.
“That’s the way we do it, catch them and eat them the same morning,’’ Katzmarek said. “That’s our opening day tradition.”
Quinton Homstad and Paul Taraldsen of Duluth started the morning up-river, too, then slowly fished their way back downstream, catching fish all along the way.
“We didn’t run into any big bunches (of walleyes) but we got fish in most places we tried,’’ Homstad said from the tiller command station of his boat. They, too, had their four-walleye limit in the livewell and were trying for some fun fish when Homstad tagged into a dandy 25-inch walleye. It was immediately released.
“We’ve probably caught, I don’t know, at least 15 walleyes. We threw back some big ones and kept some 17-and-18-inchers … for Mother’s Day dinner,’’ Homstad said. “We caught some northern and perch and some nice smallmouth, too.”
Homstad and Taraldsen hit the river early, launching at Boy Scout Landing and on the water by 5:30 a.m. They just beat the mad rush at 6 a.m. when anglers were waiting in line for close to an hour to launch their boats.
“It’s usually busy on the opener, but I’ve never seen it this crazy before,’’ said Austin Ourdanik of Hinckley as he waited for his turn to launch. “I guess everyone is fishing close to home like they’re supposed to.”
Trucks and trailers were parked three blocks up into Gary-New Duluth as it appeared many Northlanders were taking the governor’s advice and not traveling far to fish during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We normally go to Vermilion for the opener. But they say we can’t go that far, so we’re fishing here,’��� said Roy Aho of Cloquet as he waited to launch.
Then again, when the St. Louis River is close to home, there really isn’t any downside.
Allen Baumann and his daughter, Aliana, had half of a fishing pier to themselves along the river near Perch Lake. Allen was casting out a hook with a bit of worm for Aliana to reel back. They hadn't had more than a few nibbles by 7:30 a.m. and were getting chilled.
“I think we’ll go get some breakfast,’’ Allen said, at first thinking restaurant and then realizing most were closed. “I guess we’ll have to go home and cook it myself.”
At the other end of the fishing pier, Joe Hesch of Duluth had set up his lawn chair, had his two rods propped up against the railing, and was waiting patiently for the first walleye of 2020.
“Nothing yet, except for a rock bass and a little ruffe,’’ Hesch said as he re-baited a hook.
Hesch had brought along his little dog, Chief, a constant companion. But Chief was starting to shiver and Hesch thought it best to go warm up the pickup.
“He can’t hear much and has eye problems, but he loves to come with me,’’ Hesch said while walking Chief up the dock toward the parking lot. “So I suppose I can spoil him a little and let him warm up.”
Then it was back to his chair on the pier. There were still fish to catch. Close to home.