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The '96 walleye opener was a day to remember

This newspaper clipping from May 16, 1996, recalls the Minnesota Walleye Opener Brad Dokken spent ice fishing on the still-frozen Lake of the Woods. File photo.1 / 2
Brad Dokken2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — The email arrived nearly three weeks ago, hinting at the prospect of a Minnesota walleye opener four of us who got together in 1996 will never forget.

"Ice fishing on Lake of the Woods for the opener?" the subject line read.

"I'd say the odds are 50/50 right now," the sender said in his email. "We should plan on re-convening our 'Opener Ice Team' for 2018, conditions allowing.

"Just saying. ..."

On the opening day of Minnesota's walleye season in 1996, four of us ventured onto a part of Lake of the Woods off Graceton Beach that still was very much frozen.

And went ice fishing.

The weather was beautiful — especially by Minnesota walleye opener standards — with clear skies, a light breeze and daytime highs of nearly 70 degrees.

The photos I took on that memorable opener were destroyed when the Grand Forks Herald building burned during the Flood of 1997, but I still have an electronic copy of the newspaper clipping dated May 16,1996.

The lead photo shows one of my fishing partners wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and three chunky walleyes lined up on the ice in the foreground.

"Excellent adventure," the headline reads.

Indeed it was, and we seemingly had the lake to ourselves that day.

There wasn't another boat in sight.

The original plan on that opening day was to venture onto the ice just long enough to say we did it and then drive a few miles east to fish the Rainy River and Four-Mile Bay, both of which were open.

Not since 1950, the old-timers said, had Lake of the Woods been locked in ice on opening day.

Walking onto the ice at the end of Lake of the Woods County Road 4, we started cautiously, poking and prodding our way across the weakest ice near shore. Within 50 yards, ice conditions improved considerably, and we proceeded at a less gingerly pace.

After a couple of unproductive stops closer to shore, we walked out about a mile and a half and dropped our lines into 30 feet of water. The ice was the consistency of a giant snow cone, but it was 18 to 24 inches thick.

The fish didn't seem to mind the icy covering that lingered on top of them.

"They were aggressive — saugers, walleyes, tullibees and perch," I wrote in my story about the day. "Most were too small to keep, but the action was fast. While our open-water counterparts scratched for one or two fish, we had a difficult time keeping two lines in the water."

Even though boats were hooked up and ready, we never made it to the Rainy River that day — why leave fish to find fish, after all? By day's end, the four of us estimated we had landed more than 100 fish; we kept 25 for a fish fry that night.

It was an absolutely perfect spring day except for the lingering ice.

As of Thursday, April 26, most of Lake of the Woods remained locked in ice, based on satellite images updated daily. Four-Mile Bay was open, along with a small area near Lighthouse Gap and larger areas of open water near Oak and Flag Islands up at the Northwest Angle.

The ice is deteriorating fast, from what I've heard, and while there likely will be at least some ice floating around Big Traverse Bay in Minnesota waters come the May 12 walleye opener, I very much doubt there will be enough ice to repeat the memorable adventure four of us experienced on a beautiful spring day in May 1996.

I'll be perfectly content to spend the weekend fishing with friends in a boat as part of an event that has grown into a new outdoors tradition in recent years.

But if the ringleader of our 1996 opening-day adventure calls with the news that a plan is in the works, I'll be hard-pressed not to join in for a couple of hours, just to say I ice fished on the opener — again.

We'll see what happens.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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