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Early risers find action on Wisconsin fishing opener

ON LAKE NEBAGAMON -- The first walleye hit by the dawn's early light, when the waning moon still reflected on the crinkled surface of Lake Nebagamon.

Ted Sellers of Duluth could have predicted we would catch a walleye there. It had happened before.

"We caught it right off the magic tree," Sellers said.

The magic tree was a remnant Norway pine, dead but still standing along the shore of this lake where Sellers loves to fish. We had Lake Nebagamon almost to ourselves before sunrise on Saturday, when Wisconsin's fishing season opened statewide.

The opener will be remembered by many as a windy one, forcing many anglers off the water by late morning. Anglers had looked forward to the opener in this rare spring, when walleyes spawned in early April and crappies had already begun moving up on their spawning beds.

But the monthlong warm trend was trumped slightly on Saturday by a passing cold front. On Lake Nebagamon, water temperatures had dropped to 49 degrees after being in the low to mid-50s a week earlier.

Sellers, fishing manager at Northwest Outlet in Superior and a part-time fishing guide, is an optimist and an opportunist. Fishing from 5 a.m. to 10:30 on Saturday, we caught two nice walleyes, smallmouth bass up to 21 inches, a porky largemouth bass and several northern pike.

He had hoped for one more species.

"The water's just not warm enough for the crappies," Sellers said.

We started the day under the moonlight, trolling a shoreline drop-off in 6 to 14 feet of water. Sellers chose to troll a perch-

colored No. 11 floating Rapala and an orange-and-gold Husky Rap. It was the perch pattern that sent our starboard rod to thumping in its rod holder.

We missed a few other hits, then left the magic tree to cast another shoreline. Sellers soon scored again, catching a decent northern pike on No. 10 Husky Jerk. A tackle salesman by trade, Sellers always specifies both size and model of the tackle he uses.

A well-traveled angler, Sellers fishes the St. Louis River in Duluth, Lake Superior, Lake Vermilion, the Minocqua area of Wisconsin, several lakes in the Ely area and Wisconsin's Eau Claire Lakes. He fishes walleyes, bass, muskies, crappies and bluegills.

But he finds Lake Nebagamon hard to resist for its reliable walleyes, big bass and friendly crappies. He grew up in southern Wisconsin, and his dad often took him "up north" to fish.

"I'd go on those trips, and I didn't want to come home," he said.

When he and his wife, who's originally from Silver Bay, got the chance, they moved north

10 years ago.

We hopped from spot to spot on Lake Nebagamon on Saturday. While lakes in the Hayward area probably were crawling with anglers, we saw perhaps a dozen boats all morning.

Much of the morning, we used a favorite Sellers presentation -- a 1/8th-ounce jig tipped with a 5-inch plastic grub in crayfish color, brown with black specks. We swam them rather than jigging them, letting the twister-tails do their seductive wiggling.

"It's the original swim bait," Sellers said. "If I had to pick one go-to bait to catch a variety of fish, I'd grab a 4- to 5-inch grub and put it on an eighth-ounce jig."

Drifting or trolling several shorelines, we used that combination to catch eight or 10 smallmouth bass, several in the 17- to 21-inch range; one largemouth bass; several northern pike; and one more walleye. We released all except the walleyes, whose future were bound to involve a fillet knife and a frying pan.

From the woods, robins and blackbirds and nuthatches proclaimed it an excellent opener. Early on, a loon passed under the moon, leaving his tremolo in the sky behind him.

It was good to be with an angler who loves fishing as much as Sellers does. It was good to catch that first whiff of exhaust from Sellers' 40-horse outboard. It was good to know again the sweet resistance on the end of the line, the sandpaper texture of a walleye's flanks, the bulldog tenacity of a smallmouth bass.