By Gustave Axelson
The wake-up call for fishing came, oddly enough, via a turkey's gobbling from South Dakota farmland on the other side of Big Stone Lake.
In short order the gobbles were followed by the yips of coyotes and screechy crowing of a rooster pheasant.
"Too bad walleyes don't make a call," chirped Chris Anderson from inside his tent.
Anderson and Chuck Rottinghaus, buddies and fanatic walleye anglers who have roamed all across the Minnesota north woods and Canada in search of their favorite fish, crawled out of their tent and into darkness. My headlight shone on my wristwatch to reveal the hour: 5 a.m. Time to get the coffee percolating, stuff granola bars and bananas in a backpack, rustle up the rods and minnow bucket, and head for the boat launch.
Anderson eased his boat onto Big Stone Lake, which was still and glassy. "No walleye chop this morning," Rottinghaus observed. It's a bit early in the year to be talking about walleye chops -- we're launching a fishing boat on the last weekend of April -- but preseason walleye fishing is part of the draw to Big Stone Lake. While the walleye season on most of Minnesota's lakes and rivers doesn't open until mid-May, Big Stone Lake and other waters on the border with South Dakota open to walleye anglers a few weeks earlier (April 19 this year).
On Big Stone Lake, the walleye fishing isn't just early; it's downright good. Department of Natural Resources fish surveys have shown that Big Stone Lake has one of the highest walleye densities in the state, with more than 30 walleyes snared per gill net. With a good shot at landing a shore lunch in April, Anderson, Rottinghaus, and I dug camping and fishing gear out of our garages and headed to Big Stone Lake State Park.
The fishing trip started on a Friday afternoon with a three-and-a-half-hour dash west out of the Twin Cities to Big Stone Lake to set up my tent before sundown. Except for me, there was no weekend rush at the park office. Park manager Joanne Svendsen told me the 37-site campground was only a quarter full. It was only half-full the prior weekend for the Minnesota-South Dakota border waters walleye opener. "Come here on a Tuesday night," said Svendsen, "and you might very well have the entire place to yourself."
We opted for a bit of solitude at the park's primitive group camp. After I finished ferrying gear on the two-minute walk from the parking lot, I paused to admire this cozy, woodsy spot: two tent sites, cooking ring, picnic table, and a biffy tucked among bur oaks. Most important, the primitive camp lies at the northern end of Big Stone Lake, where the fish were biting -- according to the bait shop owner, the gas station attendant, and the butcher in nearby Ortonville.
After three hours on the water Saturday morning, the only fish biting our minnow-tipped jigs were sheepshead, or freshwater drum.
"You're sure there are walleye in this lake?" Anderson asked.
I answered that sorting through rough fish for your desired catch was a condition of fishing muddy rivers, and Big Stone Lake resembles a big muddy river in many ways. A limnological oddity, Big Stone runs 26 miles long and about a mile wide and has a mean depth of 11 feet. Big Stone Lake's shallowness gives walleye fishing here a different character, said Greg Rasset, owner of Bud's Bait Shop.
"Shallow fishing on Mille Lacs Lake means 10 to 12 feet," said Rasset. "On Big Stone shallow fishing is 2 to 3 feet. That means more jigging, more casting and retrieving of plugs. It gets you more actively involved, more like bass fishing.
"The shallow conditions also mean Big Stone Lake is one of the few lakes where you've got a good chance of catching walleye from shore."
Another sheepshead later, we pulled anchor and headed for deeper water (about 9 feet). We upped the ante by tossing six lines out of the boat, two for each angler. Because Big Stone Lake is a border water with South Dakota, two fishing lines per person are allowed. Each of us kept an eye on a slip-bobber-and-minnow set up while we jigged minnows on the other line.
Somewhere below the lake's 12,000-acre surface, there were walleye. From 2002 to 2006, the DNR annually stocked the lake with 3 million to 6 million walleye fry. DNR Fisheries evaluates stocking success by noting the number of stocked walleye taken in fish surveys. Stocked fish are identified by a fluorescent "O" on the otolith -- or inner ear bone -- from being marked with oxytetracycline as fry.
In 2004 and 2005, all of the young walleye captured in gill net surveys had O-rings, indicating 100 percent of the fish from those year-classes were stocked. In 2006 the gill net surveys indicated another strong year-class, but this time only 28 percent of the walleyes had O-rings, meaning natural reproduction was strong that year. O-rings or not, we just wanted some walleye for the frying pan back at camp.
"No more of this head-wagging business," said Anderson, referring to the characteristic strike of a sheepshead. "I want to hook into something that feels like a log." Walleye are known to be quite submissive on the end of an angler's line.
I casted and retrieved my jig for the umpteenth time, but this time I met resistance -- dead weight. My pulse quickened as I reeled rapidly, pole bending, and then my catch surfaced from the brown water. It was, indeed, a log.
As the last minutes of the morning ticked away, we decided to change strategy again and fish the shallows where a creek empties into the lake on the South Dakota side. Near shore the scenery was oak savanna. Farther inland, the landscape rose into rolling hills of Dakota grasslands.
Rottinghaus yipped like a coyote at some action on his jig. Moments later, he reeled in our first keeper of the day. I glanced down at my watch and said: "I guess prairie walleye strike at high noon."
Rottinghaus caught his 12-inch walleye -- modest sized, but good for eating -- near the mouth of the stream. On shore, among bur oaks, stood a billboard that advertised Land For Sale.
"There's been a ton of development [on Big Stone Lake] over the last 10 to 15 years," Rasset had told me at the bait shop. "On the south side of the lake, the whole landscape has changed, with lots of seasonal cabins and even permanent homes built by retirees, right on the shore." Rasset, 38, grew up here. His dad was the manager at Big Stone Lake State Park. Development, he said, is only the latest challenge to this walleye oasis in the middle of farm country.
"When I grew up, the algae blooms on the lake were so bad in mid-June that you couldn't get on the lake on the south side to fish," said Rasset. "Now there's still an algae bloom, but it's much smaller and it doesn't start until August."
Credit for the lake's rebound goes to Citizens for Big Stone Lake, a local water-quality watchdog group. Concerned Minnesotans and South Dakotans formed the group in 1977 and enlisted state agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency in a cleanup effort. The EPA evaluated Big Stone Lake and classified it as hypereutrophic, the worst rating for loading of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. EPA analysts determined the cause of the lake's massive algal blooms and high sedimentation to be runoff water laced with fertilizers from farms. The citizens group worked with local farmers to get them grants for conservation land practices such as no-till planting, creating buffer wetlands along shorelines, idling marginal land through the Conservation Reserve Program, and installing more than 50 livestock waste management systems.
Now algal blooms are smaller and short-lived. EPA has upgraded the lake's rating to eutropic, which means the lake is still rich in nutrients but less so. That may be a return to the lake's presettlement water quality, said Roger Sandberg, Citizens for Big Stone Lake board member.
"Historical records refer to Big Stone Lake as being similar to the muddy Minnesota River," said Sandberg, who is a science teacher at Ortonville High School. He and his students have collected data on the lake's water quality for the past 20 years. He said his data still shows spikes in nutrient levels after rainstorms. In addition to agriculture, Sandberg thinks lakeshore development could be contributing to nutrient loading with increased runoff from lawns and septic systems. This year the EPA and the citizens group will work with lakeshore owners to properly maintain septic systems and build rain gardens and lakeshore buffer vegetation strips that slow and filter runoff.
Today a cleaner Big Stone Lake supports high populations of yellow perch and a prime predator of perch: the walleye. Rottinghaus yanked another foot-long walleye out of the spot near the stream before we decided to head back to camp for lunch.
Strong wind gusts funneled from the Dakotas down the Minnesota River valley, kicking up a chop that bounced the boat mightily, but the trip of a mile across the lake wasn't long. We tied the boat to a tree at our campsite and went ashore to eat salami sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs from a cooler. The boat's livewell held Rottinghaus' walleyes for dinner.
While Anderson and Rottinghaus sprawled out for an after-lunch nap, I headed uphill behind camp to explore the 115-acre Bonanza Prairie Scientific and Natural Area -- a prairie atop gravelly glacial till that was never plowed for farming. It is not the famous tallgrass prairie of 10-foot big bluestem grasses that forced pioneers to stand on their horses to survey their surroundings. This is dry hill prairie -- ankle-high, easy-walking prairie.
It was early spring yet, so the little bluestem and grama grasses were still roasted and tan, dead stalks of grass that crunched underfoot. There was no semblance of the summertime scene here, when this grassland will be hale and hearty and blushing with wildflowers, such as prairie smoke and coneflowers. But still, as I walked, the soul of the prairie was intact. This place was open and windy.
I came down from the prairie at dusk, time to go fishing. Boating northward from camp, we saw a cluster of boats around the mouth of a stream on the Minnesota side. Anderson nudged our boat into the crowd. Shortly after sunset, he took his first walleye. Then Rottinghaus pulled another one, his third for the day.
Four fish was plenty for dinner, so we motored back to camp. There I suffered the indignity of cutting up and cooking potatoes and onions, as I had no fish to clean. But I shared in the satisfaction of an open fire, a pan of sizzling oil, and a sumptuous meal of walleye. By the flickering light of the campfire, between mouthfuls of crispy battered fish, Anderson paused to note the irony of the moment.
"Man, I can't wait for the walleye opener in two weeks."