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Sunny skies, hungry walleyes: Minnesota fishing opener successful on the St. Louis River

Jerry Atkinson of Duluth and his fishing partner land a walleye during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)1 / 8
Fishing boats fill the river during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)2 / 8
Ziggy Messer, 5, of Duluth fishes with his family during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)3 / 8
A walleye caught on a pink crank bait remains submerged while being reeled to the boat during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)4 / 8
Chad Clough of Mahtowa displays a 20-inch walleye he caught during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)5 / 8
Chris Edquist of Superior displays a walleye he caught during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)6 / 8
Chad Clough of Mahtowa lands a walleye while fishing during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)7 / 8
A selection of crank baits used during the Minnesota fishing opener on the St. Louis River in Duluth Saturday. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)8 / 8

DULUTH — Pass the sunscreen.

That's not something we're used to hearing on a Minnesota fishing opener, but that's the kind of weather we had Saturday morning on the St. Louis River.

On a day that started cool, with a warning on the truck's dashboard that "Danger: Ice may form,'' the sunshine quickly warmed our faces while the walleyes warmed our hearts.

"There aren't many openers like this. Usually it's snowing on us,'' said Chad Clough, of Mahtowa. "I need to take my jacket off."

Clough was captaining his 21-foot Skeeter boat with his fishing partner, Chris Edquist of Superior. They made quick work of rigging four rods and we had our first walleye to the boat, a nice 17-inch male, within five minutes, in the Spirit Lake area.

"It's a good start,'' Edquist said.

Edquist and Clough fish in tournaments together and work the boat and rods with a well-honed precision. You can tell they've been fishing together for nearly 20 years.

But it was a little unsettling to hear how they came to be friends.

"Chad and I met in prison,'' Edquist said before explaining that they both work for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

"We get along pretty good,'' Clough added. "He's only thrown me out of the boat a couple times."

The pair eschewed the traditional nightcrawler/spinner rigs that many anglers were using Saturday on the river, and instead trolled crankbaits — Flicker Shads — in a multitude of colors. We zig-zagged through other boats that were mostly drifting or moving slower, with Clough keeping one eye on his TV-sized Hummingbird sonar unit and the other on the tips of the rods, waiting for that telltale bend of a walleye on the other end.

"I like to cover a lot of water looking for aggressive fish,'' Clough said as his Yamaha 9.9 horsepower kicker motor pushed us along at about 1.7 mph. "You can catch fish by hanging out in one spot, but I like to keep moving."

The first few fish of the morning came on pink and "sassy shad'' colors, although Clough cringed a bit that the word of his choices might get out.

"Pink is actually one of my best,'' he said.

A warm opener after a cold spring tends to put folks in a good mood. The temperature pushed 60 degrees away from Lake Superior and everyone on the water seemed to be smiling, even if they weren't catching fish. It was good enough just to have a face full of sunshine and feel the boat rock gently, with a friendly wave or thumbs-up to the next boat over.

But catching a bunch of walleyes made it even better.

Over about five hours on the water the fishing was steady, although not fast by St. Louis River standards, with plenty of walleyes from 14 to 19 inches. The biggest of the day were 20 and 21 inches, both released. We managed to catch our boat's limit of eight keeper walleyes — two per person at least 15 inches or longer — but never caught a true hog.

We sprinkled in a bunch of small pike and rock bass for good measure.

"It's kind of odd we haven't seen any big fish caught today. I'm not sure where the big females are," said Edquist, who guides on the river between tournaments and fishing for fun. "They certainly finished spawning a while ago and they are off feeding somewhere."

Other anglers we boated past appeared to be having about the same luck. Boats of every sort were stacked up and down the river, with bigger crowds at the usual popular spots around Spirit Lake, Boy Scout Landing and Walleye Alley. Others parked a lawn chair on the banks and fished from shore.

By late morning, as we trolled along Water Street in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood, it was downright warm, and anglers were shedding jackets and winter hats.

Closer to noon a light breeze was blowing off Lake Superior, making things a little cooler. But the duo said the breeze was made to order for fishing in shallow water, adding some waves to refract the sunlight. Sure enough, in our last few passes of the trip, we caught several walleye in just five and six feet of water in the lower river where remote wooded bays give way to heavy industry on the shore.

"This has been one of our best spots the last couple of years,'' Edquist noted. "But we have a lot of best spots out here."

Good reports

"It's been absolutely fantastic. We had a group of three who came in who caught 60 walleyes this morning,'' said Kim Leonhardt, owner of High Banks Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish. "They had some up to 23 inches. ... And the weather is just beautiful; 58 degrees and a light wind. Considering we didn't know a week ago if we'd have ice or water on the opener, it really couldn't be any better."

Anglers also were catching walleyes on Boulder and Island Lakes north of Duluth, said Jeremy Thompson at Chalstroms Bait & Tackle.

"We've already got some photos under the counter here of some kids with nice fish. One was a 25-incher,'' Thompson said, noting several anglers were having success fishing from shore by the Island Lake bridge.

Island lake is unusually low this spring due to construction work on the dam.

Phil Bakken, who operates the Fishing with Phil guide service on Lake Vermilion, said his party of three had their limits of walleyes by 7:30 a.m.

"Those who were out early did really well. It slowed a bit after 8,'' Bakken said, noting most of his fish were caught trolling in Pike Bay with some smaller fish caught in the mud flats.

Gov. Dayton has good opener

Gov. Mark Dayton and his fishing party caught eight fish Saturday morning on Green Lake in Spicer, Minn. Lifelong Willmar area resident Kelly Morrell, a highly accomplished angler and active local community member, hosted the governor and his group.

"We had a great time ... I caught three bass, which made my whole day, made my last fishing opener very special," said Dayton upon returning from fishing.

Joining the governor in his boat were House Speaker Kurt Daudt, House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Gazelka's son, Josh.

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