TOWER, Minn. - Dennis Highby eased his big Warrior fishing boat toward shore along Pine Island on Lake Vermilion and soon had hooked his first fish of the 2015 walleye fishing season.
"Pretty little," said Highby, an ardent angler and a summer resident of Lake Vermilion.
It was a plump little perch, not a walleye, and it went back to the lake. But on a cool and breezy Minnesota fishing opener, Highby was on the board.
Highby and his party on Saturday morning were on the nearly 40,000-acre lake that stretches 40 miles from Tower to Cook for the 2015 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener.
No matter that the forecast originally had called for sunny skies and a high near 60. Most anglers wouldn't know how to handle such balmy conditions for the opener, especially after the past two seasons when ice went out just in time for the opener-or a couple of days later.
Despite the chill, a few hundred anglers-led by some 100 Lake Vermilion guides and residents-bundled up and did what Minnesotans do on the opener. They went fishing.
Gov. Mark Dayton was fishing with guide Tim "Buck" Lescarbeau of Tower, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. All were taking a bipartisan break from a contentious legislative session. Later, back at the Fortune Bay Resort dock at midday, Dayton would joke, "We got the whole budget worked out on a little piece of paper, but we dropped it right out there."
He pointed toward the wind-ruffled waters of the sprawling lake.
Highby was joined by longtime friend and Lake Vermilion neighbor Jim Regas, 77, of Duluth. The two fish together all summer.
The group trolled Lindy rigs with minnows, and a bottom bouncer and spinner rig with minnows, and caught fish steadily, if not fast, all morning. None was big, but several were outside Lake Vermilion's 18- to 26-inch protected slot limit for walleyes, and a few of them went into the live well. Along the way, Highby and Regas talked about favorite fishing spots-Two Loon, the Grocery, Torture. They also talked about the place they call Surgery Island, where Highby once removed a treble hook from Regas' hand.
Highby, who retired in 2010 as president and CEO of the outfitting giant Cabela's, talked of hunting stag in the mountains of the former Soviet Union and other far-flung trips.
Regas, retired from a career of commercial painting, told stories of growing up poor in Greece and emigrating to Australia and finally to Duluth.
"The first time I put on shoes, I was 15," Regas said. "We'd play soccer, no shoes, with tin cans. Our feet would get cut. We'd rub dirt on the cuts."
Listening to both men's stories, one suspected there were lots more where those came from.
Lake Vermilion is big enough to spread out several hundred anglers on the opener. Boats clustered in sixes and eights along shorelines and islands. Guides cruised past with guests, looking for more-productive waters. Eagles and ospreys looked down on this explosion of activity, perhaps figuring their odds of plucking dead minnows from the water had suddenly improved.
Fishing has been good on the lake in recent years, said Highby, who has owned a summer home here for six years.
"The lake is full of walleyes," he said. "It's just a matter of getting the right size that you can keep. We catch a lot of fish. We don't keep a lot of fish."
Last summer, he said, a grandson caught a 29½-inch walleye that weighed more than 11 pounds.
Judging by the marine radio chatter and conversations with passing anglers, everyone was catching a few fish Saturday, mostly in deeper water. Nearly all of the walleyes were small. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, got on a radio himself and let everyone know that he and his wife started the day with a double on walleyes, each catching one at the same time.
A call to Lescarbeau, the governor's guide, late in the morning brought good news.
"The governor caught eight walleyes," Lescarbeau said as the group continued to fish. "Bakk caught 13. Kurt has 10. We fished deep, 42 feet, live bait on Lindy rigs."
Each angler later added to their total. The final tally: 14 for Bakk, 12 for Daudt and nine for Dayton.
The temperature grudgingly rose to about 51 degrees. Fingerless gloves felt good around the fishing rod. Clouds rode low over the lake's 365 islands and its 1,200 miles of shoreline.
The Dayton family has had a comfortable retreat on Lake Vermilion for decades, and the governor grew up fishing with his dad. Only after the governor reached adulthood did he realize his dad wasn't the fisherman that Dayton had thought he was.
But in Lescarbeau's charge on Saturday, the governor learned a lot about walleye fishing. Back at the dock when the morning's fishing was finished, Dayton was beaming. Everyone on Lescarbeau's boat was puffing on celebratory cigars. Before a crowd of press and onlookers, Dayton and Lescarbeau fist-bumped to their success.
"I caught more fish this morning than on any other opening day on Lake Vermilion in 62 years," the governor quipped.
Out on the water, a gull swooped down to snag something on the surface. But it didn't seem to be a piece of paper adorned with budget scrawlings.