LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH - Forgive Gerry Albert if he gets a little excited when he catches walleyes here.
"Here's another one!'' Albert shouted as he set the hook on a walleye, working to keep a tight line and run his outboard in whitecaps. "Ohhh, and I think it's a keeper!"
Big Winnie is Albert's lake, so to speak. He's the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' large lakes fisheries specialist for the huge reservoir - 67,000 acres, 88 square miles - northwest of Deer River.
Albert's been working on Winnie for 29 years and, when anglers are successful here, he sometimes gets the credit. When fish are hard to catch, Albert often gets the blame. In recent years, he's been getting more blame as some anglers struggled to catch keeper-size walleye.
This year, however, the lake has been "on fire'' since the opener, especially for big walleyes 18 inches and up, Albert and others say. But it's also producing better numbers of keepers, below the 18- to 23-inch protected slot limit.
"It's like the good old days have come back,'' said Bill Heig, who owns Bowens Resort on Winnibigoshish. "The bite has been over-the-top."
Albert believes that's because the lake's infamous "stained'' water is back after a two-year hiatus.
"The dark water is making it easier for people to catch fish,'' Albert said. The walleyes are "back in places people traditionally caught them."
The bad news is that Lake Winnibigoshish became fully infested by zebra mussels in recent years, dramatically increasing the lake's water clarity. Big Winnie went from an average 6-foot visibility, called a secchi disc rating, to an astonishing 22 feet.
The lake's "stain'' is really phytoplankton - small plant algae that gave the water a green appearance and soaked up light entering the water. Zebra mussels feed on phytoplankton, filtering tons of them from the water and making it more clear. Sea Grant experts say each thumbnail-size zebra mussel can filter up to 4 liters of water every day.
All of those filter-feeders changed the Winnie ecosystem, and in 2016 and 2017, made the lake's infamous walleyes harder to catch. Super-clear water sends walleyes - with big, sensitive eyes tuned for low-light conditions - scrambling deeper, or into the cover of weeds, or makes them more active at night and on cloudy, windy days when waves help cut the light streaming into the lake.
"The walleyes were always there. They just got harder to catch using traditional methods in the traditional places,'' Albert said of the last two years. "People who fished early or late (during the day) or who fished deeper, or found weeds, they still caught fish."
The good news is that, so far this year, water clarity is back down to about 9 feet.
"I can't explain it. I don't have any proof but I have a theory that a bunch of the zebra mussels froze out this winter," Albert said. "Most of the hard substrate (hard surfaces that zebra mussels cling to) are shallow water on this lake and and we had 40 inches of ice this winter. I think that took some of them out."
With fewer filters, more phytoplankton is surviving and the lake is darker again.
"We don't know how long it will last,'' Albert said of the darker water. "But it's fun while it does."
Jig a minnow, set the hook
On a cloudy, humid, windy day recently five of us in two boats landed roughly two-dozen walleyes over 18 inches, all of them released. Most came on one-eighth-ounce jigs tipped with a minnow (spot-tail shiners are the Winnie favorite, but fatheads worked, too.)
We jigged over a sandy bottom on the windward (waviest) corner of the lake and caught walleyes in 5-10 feet of water. We caught multiple small northerns, some giant rock bass and several jumbo perch, too.
But we also caught a bunch of keeper walleyes under 18 inches - the kind of fish traditional walleye anglers want for a fish fry. That got the Winnie regulars in our group especially excited, as those eater-size fish had been the hardest to catch in recent years.
"People like to catch big fish, but they also want fish to eat. And we're getting more of those this year,'' said Grant Prokop, a Grand Rapids, Minn.-based fishing guide and sporting goods store owner, as he plopped a 15-inch walleye into his Lund's livewell. "I know there are tons of these 15-inchers out here; you just have to work to find them."
Albert said it's unclear how soon the zebra mussels will recover sending water clarity back up. They appear to have multiplied and spread rapidly in Winnie because it is so fertile - the same reason its walleyes grow so fast. The 2013 class of walleyes in Winnie are already 19 inches long. On nearby Cass Lake, for comparison, they are about 16 inches long.
"This lake is so fertile. The growth rate is something we don't normally see this far north,'' Albert said. "It's probably also why the zebra mussels did so well so fast."
New tactics for clear water
Eventually, the zebra mussel population will explode again, Albert suspects, and the water will get clearer and the walleyes will leave their shallow haunts. But that won't make them impossible to catch.
"If they know how to adapt they will still catch fish. If they understand this stuff they will figure it out,'' Prokop said, standing up in his boat and gesturing toward his giant Hummingbird depth finder. That means finding the fish where they are, not where they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Adapting means trolling crankbaits farther behind the boat so they go deeper. Or using lead core line.
"I've seen a lot more guys trolling with planer boards the last couple of years, and they're catching fish,'' said Prokop, who owns 1,000 Lakes Sporting Goods in Grand Rapids.
Other guides also urge anglers to keep their baits as far from the boat as possible, and using the lightest jigs possible for the conditions.
"It's important that people adapt and keep catching fish. It's important for us (resorts) but also for the local guides and bait shops. There's a huge industry that depends on the lake,'' Heig said.
Albert brushed-off any suggestion that Winnie was following Lake Mille Lacs toward a long-term reduced walleye population. Mille Lacs, too, has been invaded by zebra mussels. But Albert said Mille Lacs - where anglers can't keep any walleyes this summer - faces several other problems, such as spiny water fleas, which Winnie doesn't have.
Mille Lacs also has seen a decline in zooplankton - small creatures that form the base of the fish food chain but which compete with zebra mussels for phytoplankton. Winnie hasn't seen that zooplankton decline.
In March, the DNR held a public meeting in Grand Rapids on the future of Winnibigoshish fishing. More than 100 people showed up. Albert and others explained the impact zebra mussels are having on the lake, but also explained that test netting and spring egg-taking show a healthy population of walleyes with no sign of collapse.
As of now, the DNR is planning no changes in Winnie walleye regulations. The limit will stand at six fish daly, with no fish kept between 18 and 23 inches and one longer than 23 inches allowed.
"It was a good meeting. We got a chance to talk about the impact of zebra mussels, but also to explain that the walleyes are still there,'' Albert said. "I think we got our message out. Or, the (great) fishing right now will get the message out."
Stop the spread, drain your boat
Zebra mussels likely moved from their native Eurasia into the Great Lakes in the ballast of oceangoing ships. They were first found in Minnesota in the Duluth harbor in 1989. The first zebra mussel babies, called veligers, were confirmed in Lake Winnibigoshish in 2012. By 2016, the first adult mussels were spotted. By 2018, they had invaded the entire lake. They are likely to remain, in varying numbers, forever.
But experts say it's not inevitable zebra mussels will invade every lake. Only about 1 percent of Minnesota's 11,000 lakes are infested with zebra mussels - just a fraction of what would be infested if people weren't taking precautions.
Boaters, anglers, divers, waterfowl hunters and others who visit infested lakes are urged, and required by law, to prevent moving any water from one lake or river to another. It's also mandatory to empty bilges and livewells and remove any weeds from boat trailers.
The rules mean draining, cleaning and drying all parts of boats that are trailered to different lakes. It also means not moving live bait between lakes.