CHASSELL - An early spring only increased anticipation for Tuesday's walleye opener, and now that the wait is finally over, local anglers are hitting the water hoping to take advantage of an improving Keweenaw fishery.
"The opener is such an important day for so many people around here and business and cabin owners along the water," Copper Country Walleye Association President Ross Rinkinen said. "It's not often you can wear shorts and a T-shirt in May on the opener."
Rinkinen caught a few walleye on Gratiot and Portage lakes during opening day, but despite the near-70-degree temperatures and water temperatures hovering around 60, results were mixed due to a low local walleye population.
"Particularly Portage and Torch Lake have been struggling a little bit," CCWA member J.R. Baker said. "The CCWA is working hard to return the fishery to what it was a few years ago."
The organization, whose mission is to "conserve, protect and restore a vibrant and sustainable walleye sport fishery in the greater Copper Country area of Michigan," started in February 2011 after the Michigan Department of Natural Resources expressed an interest in more fish restocking in local lakes and rivers. On April 30, the group helped plant 1.5 million walleye in Chassell Bay, which will be ready to catch in a few years.
"We've been stocking fish the last two years. There were some larger fish stocked last year, so they might be legal sized," Baker said. "It looks like a beginning of the recovery."
While numbers are down in Portage Lake, the size of fish has generally been quite large, many more than 5 pounds caught so far, according to Rinkinen. Walleye spawned earlier this year and moved out of the rivers sooner, and anglers are finding the most success trolling in more open water.
"Weather-wise it's been good for folks to get out. The fish are in early summer patterns after they spawned about a month ago," Baraga DNR Fisheries Biologist George Madison said. "It's been spotty across the U.P. - the western U.P. catches have been light with not real strong numbers. It's been a pretty typical opener. Folks are getting out and finding other fish, too."
Northern pike season also opened Tuesday, and anglers have also been catching black crappie and panfish. But the focus remains on walleye with hotspots such as Chassell Bay being popular among anglers.
In fact, Chassell Bay serves as the host to a weekly walleye event, the Portage Lake Walleye League. Thursday was the first night of competition and of the 12 competitors, five caught fish.
Rinkinen hopes the event grows in size and it runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays, starting and ending at the boat launch, following a catch-and-release format with an honor system for reporting fish size in inches.
The event will run for 13 weeks, with the best eight scores calculated into standings.
"It's a lot of fun. Some people have a golf league, some have a hockey league, we happen to have a walleye league," Rinkinen said.
For those interested in the league, call Rinkinen at 906-231-4630. For more information about the CCWA, visit ccwalleye.com.