Open Season: Wind, waves, walleyes sure signs of spring
The wind whipped Ottertail Lake into a wave-riddled froth resembling an army of white-helmeted soldiers marching to war.
Then the trolling motor quit.
When dead in the water on angry seas, a person's first reaction ought to be panic.
Mine was disappointment.
As the boat quickly ebbed south into deeper water, it occurred to me, rather starkly, that the day may be over before it began.
Realizing we had ceased our semi-linear progression along one of Ottertail Lake's steep breaks, my wife, Erin, and father, Bret, asked what the problem was.
"Trolling motor died," I said, with a sigh. "Figures."
It was our first fishing trip of the year on big water, and our first chance at catching some hungry early-summer, post-spawn walleyes.
So far, however, we'd only managed a few hammer-handle pike and gluttonous perch.
The livewell remained empty.
Erin began reeling in her line, but dad hesitated.
"We should try drifting," he said, possibly noticing the look of defeat creasing my face.
At first, the notion sounded preposterous. While walleyes are occasionally apt to pounce on fleet-finned prey, especially later in the summer, a shiner delicately lipped on a hook and trailed slowly on a 5-foot leader seems to produce many more takers this time of year. Drifting this day likely would result in a very fast presentation - too fast.
Considering our options - stay and fish or leave and pout - there was only one real answer.
"What do we have to lose?" I shrugged.
Erin and dad reeled in as our dog, Remy, kept eager watch. The few boats that had joined us on the choppy waters were disappearing one by one off the lake, or retreating to the safety of shallower locales.
Our old, smoky Mercury fired on the first turn of the key, emitting a billow of blue-gray exhaust that lingered only momentarily on the lake surface before dissolving like a soggy Kleenex.
I steered the 18-foot Lund northwest as the waves sprayed its occupants with wind-chilled droplets. Erin buried her face in Remy's warm fur, while dad, steadfast at the bow, gripped both hands on his creaking chair and braced for impact.
Despite the wind's fervent pace away from the fishing spot, it had only taken a minute to reach the drop-off's lip under the power of the reliable outboard. It was just eight feet deep at the shallowest point, but quickly spilled to 17 as we opened bails and emptied their contents to the lake floor.
The Hummingbird depth finder, which doubled as a GPS unit, blipped out our speed as we sailed southeast: one-mile-an-hour, 1.2, 0.9, 1.5. Our fishing lines were stretched out at a laughably obtuse angle.
"We're going way too fast," I mumbled.
As if on cue and to once again prove how wrong I was about fishing, Erin said, rather matter-of-factly, "Got one."
Her rod strained under the weight of its thumping catch.
My eyes widened and I grabbed the net as the fish slowly materialized from the turbid depths.
The walleye splashed to the surface, maw gaping wide to reveal a shredded shiner minnow dangling from an orange hook that was deftly imbedded into its upper lip.
In one fell swoop, the black Frabill net dipped down and came up with the fat, flopping 18-inch marble-eye.
The livewell was no longer vacant, and there was plenty of room at the inn for more tenants.
I often boast about Erin's gift for fishing. It's become a sort-of running joke - how she went from barely knowing how to work a reel to out-fishing any male companion - and draws a few laughs from relatives and friends. But even though I may spin a yarn for affect, deep down I'm dead serious.
That woman has a knack and knows how to use it.
As if to punctuate that sentiment, mere seconds after I re-baited her hook with a fresh minnow, Erin announced that she had struck again.
Just like that, the lone walleye in the boat had company.
As the relentless wind howled and the waves battered our vessel, its content trio couldn't help but grin as the day raged on. Eventually, the saturating gray skies gave way to intermittent sunlight, and those brief moments of warmth did nothing but temper our resolve.
Each pass down the drop-off yielded results, be it walleyes, perch, northerns or rock bass.
Dad's luck was a bit short, and while he earlier bragged about catching the most walleyes - four minnow-like fish that were sent back to the briny deep - his boisterousness subsided after Erin went on a spree unrivaled by that of even the most veteran fishermen.
By 3 p.m., we were nearly out of bait and dad needed to head home to the Twin Cities.
But instead of all of us packing it in, he offered an alternative: let us keep the boat for a couple weeks so we could keep fishing.
I was on Cloud Nine.
After a quick run to Ken's Tackle on Ottertail's south shore to top off our lake shiner reserves, we smiled and waved goodbye to dad, then scooted back out to the break to continue the drifting success from earlier.
One by one, eyes graced the livewell until Erin filled out her six-fish limit with 16-19 inch walleyes. I'd scratched two walleyes, myself, as well as a fat 32-inch northern that was above the one-over-30 inch slot set for the lake.
It was a true gem of a gator, but I didn't weigh it. When it comes to pike, our family gauges them more on pints pickled, per se, than pounds.
With a boat full of future dinners and the sun hanging low in the western skies, Erin and I finally called it a day. Remy, the faithful pooch, was nearly comatose from hours of anxiously watching for the next creature to be pulled from the water. He was ready for his supper, anyway.
In no time, we were back to the reality of Fargo. Just like that, the events of the day were relegated to memories.
The good thing about memories, however, is that there's always time to make more. And with the way this summer is shaping up, there will be plenty more opportunities to do just that.
Sports Editor Tyler Shoberg can be reached at 701-451-5717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.