Hooked on the St. Louis River
ON THE ST. LOUIS RIVER, DULUTH -- The dark shape of three human forms loomed in the blackness at Boy Scout Landing shortly after 4 a.m. Saturday. The temperature was 41. A steady drizzle fell from unseen skies.
"Call us crazy," said Duluth's Marty Durfee, one of the shadowy forms, "but here we are."
Durfee, who has been fishing the river since his childhood, doesn't like opening-day crowds at boat landings, and this was opening day of Minnesota's 2009 fishing season.
In minutes, his 18-foot Alumacraft was in the water, and four of us followed a flashlight beam upstream to an island near the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge.
Todd Maas of Duluth dropped anchor. Ryan Durfee, Marty's son, readied the minnows.
"I wouldn't miss this day," Ryan, 21, had said earlier.
He had arrived home from the University of North Dakota just the night before to fish with his dad.
When the jigs and minnows went plip, plip, plip over the gunwale, fishing season officially opened for three of Minnesota's estimated 1.5 million anglers. For nearly 20 years, Durfee and his friends have spent the opener on the St. Louis, one of the most productive walleye fisheries in the state.
We had the upper river almost to ourselves at that early hour. Only four other boats, lit bow and stern with running lights, had arrived before us.
Soon we moved up even closer to the bridge, where we idled up next Charlie Nelson, Jon and Kyle Langlee and Phil Rust, all of Duluth. They're friends of Durfee and Maas. We fished less than a cast apart, exchanging conversation in the charcoal dawn.
The Nelson party had been on the water since about 3 a.m., and Durfee made no apology for his 4 a.m. start. They all take their fishing seriously.
"This is what it's like when you're us," said Durfee, 50.
And then an odd thing happened. No walleyes bit.
Well, Maas had one on but lost it. And Nelson netted a small one next door. But in more than an hour, that was it for our little clan.
As dawn came grudgingly with the drizzle, more boats arrived. Only a couple caught fish with any consistency.
Understand, few people know the river better than the Durfee-Maas-Nelson clans. They fish it all spring, summer and fall.
And something else unusual happened. Only about a dozen boats came to fish near the Highway 23 bridge, usually a magnet for Lunds and Alumacrafts and Sylvans on the opener.
Pretty soon, Nelson and his bunch pulled out to move downstream. Later, so did Durfee and Co. We moved a half-mile downriver and began dragging bottom-bouncer weights, spinner rigs and night crawlers.
Ryan immediately connected with a handsome 19-inch walleye. His dad made him toss it back. Too small to enter in the opening-day contest at Moldeez Bar in Gary. Too big to eat for shore lunch.
But the bouncers kept working. Soon, we had a few eaters in the live well, and Maas' drove a chartreuse hook through the upper jaw of a walleye that turned out to be 26 inches long. He had his contest fish, and it went into the live well.
He also released a 23½-incher.
Where the crowds were
Every time a fish came aboard, Marty Durfee punched his little silver fish counter. He keeps a running tally for the entire summer.
A good year?
"Three hundred to 500," he said.
Around us, other anglers began to catch fish, too, many of them trolling Rapala minnow-imitations. Nobody seemed to be catching tons of fish, but most were getting something.
The cell phones sang from jacket pockets, and word came back from Nelson and from Maas' dad, Rob Maas, downriver. They were getting fish on bottom bouncers and crawler rigs, too.
Not only were people finding fish, but lots of them were big. Twenty-fives, -sixes and -sevens. It seemed to us that anglers were catching a much higher proportion of big fish than on most openers.
When anglers weren't catching fish, they had plenty to watch. The pewter sky was alive with Canada geese, ducks and one swan. Pelicans bobbed above the Highway 23 bridge. The new green of willows and aspen gave the shoreline a watercolor wash.
The morning was cool enough that bare hands sought jacket pockets. It was wet enough, off and on, that hoods were handy.
We moved farther downstream and figured out why so few boats populated the Highway 23 bridge area. All of them were jammed up at navigational buoys 77, 78, 79 and 80.
Thirty-five boats were clustered at buoy 80. We counted more than 100 from buoy 79 to Boy Scout Landing, a distance of less than a mile. In many places, anglers trolled past each other close enough for conversation, and not a harsh word was spoken.
It was enough, it seemed, just to be fishing for walleyes again.