In the dead of winter, open water isn't exactly easy to find in Minnesota. Unless, of course, you are on the Mississippi River between Hastings and Red Wing.
The massive Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant spews so much relatively warm water during the winter months that an expansive stretch of the Mississippi River stays mostly ice free. Open water can be found just upstream from the Red Wing dam and then downstream for miles.
And where there is open water, there are fishermen. Head to Red Wing in March or April, and you are bound to be overwhelmed by the number of boats. On the water, the scene is stunning. Hundreds and hundreds of boats are spread out along the shorelines near the dam and downstream, all the way into Red Wing.
But in January? Well, to say there are fewer boats in January would be a bit of an understatement. Few are brave (or ignorant) enough to go fishing in a boat when the air temperature is just 10 degrees.
The call of the walleye, and the site of open water, though, have a tendency to cloud judgement. And so we go.
Friday morning at 6 a.m. I left my cozy home in Hastings and drove to Everts Resort near Red Wing to meet up with my good friend, Corey Waller. Corey is well known around Hastings as one of the old managers at John's Outdoors; he now works for Hastings Ford. Corey brought along his brother-in-law, John, from Sioux Falls, S.D.
I told Corey that I wasn't wearing all the clothes from my closet. I was just wearing most of them.
Never before had walking been this difficult. Three pairs of wool socks. Shirts upon shirts upon shirts. Long underwear. Pants. A snowsuit on top of the pants. The biggest coat you've ever seen. And it paid off. I was warm, at least for the first 15 minutes.
There's just something about racing upriver in 10-degree weather at 20 miles per hour in a fishing boat that doesn't feel right, no matter how many articles of clothing you are wearing. Yet, soon enough, the short trip from Everts to the dam was over and our lines were in the water.
Corey had the most luck fishing, which didn't surprise John or me. He ended up catching six walleyes, the biggest of which was 16 inches. I caught one, and John was skunked.
Most days, the fishing is better. Stop at Everts sometime and just look at all the photos on the wall. After spending some time in the bait shop, you'll start to think that 11-pound walleyes are common. They're not. I was reminded of this upon seeing my 10-inch walleye surface.
According to the boat's depth finder, the water temperature on the surface was a balmy 34 degrees. That got us all to wondering just how much warm water is coming out of that nuclear power plant.
Fishermen aren't the only species attracted by open water. I've never seen more bald eagles in my life. They were lined up in trees along the banks of the river, common as geese at Lake Rebecca.
Amazing as this may sound, I can see myself going back down the river to try all of this again. Frankly, I'd rather fish while freezing on an open river than fish in March with 400 other boats in the area.
The fish are there. There's no doubt about that. It's just a matter of being crazy enough to go out and being dumb enough to stay out.