Thursday’s report that the Rainy River in Birchdale, Minn., was ice-free and open to boats of all sizes brought back the memory of the first time I fished the border river.
That was way back in 1987, and those two days in April remain the gold standard for walleye fishing.
It all started on a Saturday evening, when a longtime friend and former co-worker and I set off from Grand Forks after work for his parents’ place in Grand Rapids. There, we would pick up a 12-foot Lund with a 4-horse Evinrude outboard and head north to the border country early the next morning.
Two friends were already camping and fishing on the river, and the plan was to meet up with them for some intel before dragging the small boat down the bank and across shoreline ice to reach open water.
Pulling into Franz Jevne State Park, we made a loop through the campground and quickly found our friends’ campsite. They were standing by the fire with cups of coffee enjoying the sunny spring morning.
“Get your boat in the water,” was the first thing they said.
Both experienced anglers, they raved about the fishing and the near-nonstop walleye action they’d experienced the previous day. The walleyes were snapping, they said, and the action served up both size and numbers.
None of us knew anything about fishing the Rainy River back then, other than it attracted walleyes to swim upstream from Lake of the Woods to spawn. We didn’t know about how quickly fishing dies when tributary rivers open up and spill their muddy and debris-laden contents into the river. We didn’t know anything about current breaks or the best areas to fish, other than to be sure we had Ontario licenses if we wanted to fish the Canadian side of the river.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d hit the window of spring fishing opportunity on the river at the absolute prime time; conditions were perfect.
With a fishing report like that as motivation, it didn’t take long to drag the boat down the bank and into the river below the Long Sault Rapids. Accompanied by “Frisbee,” my friend’s springer spaniel, we joined the small fleet of boats probing the depths of the river.
The fishing lived up to the hype.
As good as the walleye fishing was on the Minnesota side of the river that Sunday morning, the action looked to be even better on the Ontario side. Every boat was playing a walleye, it seemed.
We hugged the border as close as we dared before deciding we needed to invest in Ontario fishing licenses. My friend kept fishing, and I hopped in his truck and headed west to Baudette where I crossed the border into Ontario and picked up two nonresident licenses.
The investment was a good one; Ontario conservation officers checked us each of the next two days.
I couldn’t even venture to guess how many walleyes we caught during those two days on the Rainy River, but the number must have been incredible. I’d never caught a 25-inch walleye before that weekend, but I landed several during those remarkable two days.
As the clock ticked down on the second and final day of our trip, leaving the river was difficult. First, we decided we’d leave when we ran out of minnows. The minnow supply depleted, we picked up pieces and scraps of minnows from the floor of the boat and threaded them onto our jigs and continued catching fish.
Twister tails, dried-up minnows, crankbaits … it didn’t matter; the walleyes hit everything we threw at them.
Assuming that was the norm, I returned to the Rainy River the next spring, expecting a repeat of those magical two days in 1987. The tributaries had opened, the river was filled with logs and the turbid water looked like chocolate milk.
We never had a bite.