NORTH OF DEER RIVER, Minn. — Saturday’s Minnesota fishing opener unfolded at a measured pace on Cut Foot Sioux Lake north of Deer River. Anglers did not rush to their boats at dawn, as they might have on a more temperate opener.
But on this opener, the temperature was 29 degrees. A skiff of snow and overnight frost coated the docks at Williams Narrows Resort. A wind with teeth bore down from the northwest.
Slowly, as the gray morning slipped over the lake, anglers in puffy layers trundled down to the docks. They looked more like ice anglers and, in fact, many wore ice-fishing gear to ward off the morning chill.
“The only thing we didn’t bring were the tip-ups,” said Jeremiah Gilbertson of Bigfork, helping a friend launch his boat at the resort.
Grand Rapids fishing guide Nik Dimich and his fiancee Becca Kent, also of Grand Rapids, were on the water in Dimich’s new Lund at a respectable 8 a.m., headed for a point on Cut Foot where eight other boats were clustered. Photographer Clint Austin and I had joined them for the morning, trying to coax some cold-front walleyes from this popular early-season lake.
Dimich and Kent work together in a new fishing promotions venture doing publicity for companies such as Frabill, Plano and others.
Anglers in nearby boats looked like lumpy mushrooms in aluminum terrariums. The diehards wore bomber caps, insulated deer-hunting pants and duck-hunting parkas. Hoods were pulled up and cinched. Gloves were a must. The anglers scrunched down in their boat chairs, trying to give the wind a smaller target. We all looked like turtles drawing our heads back into our shells.
We asked a couple in the next boat, Lance and Julie Gebauer of Taylors Falls, Minn., how they were doing.
“Freezin’,” Lance said.
Kent, who’s also statewide chapter coordinator for the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, was looking at the positive side of this frigid fishing opener.
“The nice thing about living in Minnesota and buying all this nice cold-weather gear is that we get to use it nine months of the year,” Kent quipped.
At that first spot, we picked up one northern pike that defined the term “hammer-handle.” Through the morning, we would fish four or five different spots, drifting in 10 feet of water or less, jigging shiner minnows.
It was tough fishing. Almost nobody was catching walleyes. In more than four hours, we saw four or five boated, nearly all of them small. We caught a half-dozen northerns, and Dimich nabbed a perch. It wasn’t until midday that Kent, using a rod her dad had made for her, pulled up our solitary walleye for the morning, a modest foot-long specimen. Back it went to grow up.
The fishing life
Dimich, 31, and Kent, 25, both grew up in fishing and hunting families, Kent near Mille Lacs and Dimich in Grand Rapids. His family has a cabin on Lake Winnibigoshish, which adjoins Cut Foot Sioux. He recalls fishing with his dad and his sisters on these lakes as a small child.
“Growing up out here as a kid, I don’t think you could ask for anything more,” he said. “You had the outdoors, the lake, wilderness — it was every single summer as a kid. It was like you could run free in a sense.”
From an early age, the rule was, if you were out in the boat fishing with Dad and Grandpa, you stayed out all day.
“It was walleyes, walleyes, walleyes,” he said. “There was no going in. That was not an option.”
He remembers taking naps on the bottom of the boat under piles of float-coats, the thick jackets with built-in flotation.
Dimich and Kent met at the University of Wisconsin-Superior but didn’t become a couple until both had moved to Grand Rapids after graduating. Dimich has been guiding for about 10 years, but he and Kent have decided to put their energies into fishing promotion rather than relying on Dimich’s guiding.
“Guiding is a tough career path if that’s the full-time thing you’re doing,” Dimich said. “Guiding is fun, but there’s the aspect of looking at a career.”
He had majored in business and economics at UWS, and will apply that knowledge in the marketing and promotions work he and Kent do.
Despite the tough fishing and tougher weather, anglers seemed to be in good spirits. It was, after all, still the fishing opener. Drifting in close quarters, we chatted with other anglers, joking about the conditions, commiserating about the tough walleye bite.
A couple of times, the sun tried to break through but ultimately failed. Two bald eagles circled a pod of boats. A loon had called earlier. A flock of white pelicans glided over Williams Narrows. All of that wildlife reminded us it was spring. It just didn’t feel that way.
Every time one of us hooked a fish, we all wanted it to be a walleye. But it was northern, northern, perch, then three more pike.
Just past noon, Kent’s line went taut. She let the fish have her shiner for a moment, then set the hook with her custom-made rod.
Finally. Proof. Walleyes lived here.
“When I saw that golden shimmer in the water, I knew,” she said.
She swing the diminutive specimen aboard for a quick photo before returning it to the lake.
We headed back for the resort and began peeling off layers.