Walleyes scarce but fun abounds on northern Minnesota trip

LAKE VERMILION, Minn. (MCT) - The fish hit hard, sending my rod tip dancing.

After a brief tussle, I reeled a 16-inch walleye to the boat. It glistened in the late afternoon sun.

"Finally," I said.

Lake Vermilion was giving up its walleyes grudgingly on this particular weekend. After nearly 2 ½ days of fishing, it was my first walleye.

And no, it wasn't just incompetence. My 10 fishing partners had managed only a handful of walleyes between them, too.

Oh, we caught northerns, largemouth and smallmouth bass and even a couple keeper-size perch. But the walleyes were playing hard to get. And other anglers we encountered seemed to have the same problem.

"I haven't seen a lot of fish caught," said Jack Rendulich of Duluth, Minn., one of our group.

But get nearly a dozen old friends together on what is unquestionably one of the prettiest lakes on the planet, add cobalt sky, a spacious two-story lakeside cabin, enough food and beverages to fill a pantry and a "I'm-just-happy-to-be-here" attitude and you have a recipe for fun - even if the fish aren't biting.

"This is part of fishing, too - relaxing," said Mike Porter of Minneapolis as he eased into a reclining chair after a midday meal of scrambled eggs, venison breakfast sausage and smoked venison bacon.

He closed his eyes and fell asleep.

The late spring got most of the blame for the slow fishing. Ice didn't depart Vermilion until May 12 - almost two weeks behind the normal April 29 ice-out. Ice still covered part of the lake on the fishing opener.

The water still was plenty cold that weekend. Spawning was delayed, and we didn't find walleyes in shallow water.

Cold water could be part of it, said Joe Geis, a state Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager, based in Tower, Minn.

"People are catching fish," Geis said. "But the reports from west end of the lake (indicate) people didn't seem to be catching as many fish as on the east end of the lake."

Fishing should pick up as water warms.

"We're two weeks behind normal," said Ed Tausk, co-owner of Vermilion Dam Lodge and our host during Memorial Day weekend. "It's the first time we haven't seen (lake) weeds by now."

Some anglers caught walleyes in depths of 25 to 30 feet, he said. We tried deep. We tried shallow. We tried in between. We fished with minnows, leeches and even plastics. We tried jigs, floating jigheads, spinners and crankbaits. We fished mornings. We fished evenings.

By the end of the weekend, we barely needed two hands to count the number of walleye we caught.

Normally, crappies could be a backup plan. Vermilion has some great crappie action, though on this weekend the crappies, too, weren't yet in the shallows and were nowhere to be found.

"The crappie bite normally is on right now," Tausk said. "That's what we're missing. There's usually a two-week window where the crappie fishing is really good."

We've been there before when the crappie window was open, and it can be a boatload of fun.

While eight of us returned to the cabin to prepare dinner on our last night, three ignored the dinner bell. Instead, they stayed in a quiet bay and found some of the weekend's best fishing.

"We caught about a dozen largemouth bass in about two hours," said Tim McMullen of Delano, Minn. "And we missed as many as we caught. We just had a ball."

Meanwhile, the rest of us inhaled a classic meal of fried potatoes, baked beans and deep-fried freshly caught fish (including a few walleyes). There was more card playing. And joke telling. And naps.

By departure the next morning, under gray clouds and rain, there wasn't a gloomy face in the bunch.

Said McMullen, "It would have been nice to have better fishing, but that's not the only reason to come up here."

© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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