SHELL LAKE – Perhaps it was because the sun and the moon rose on Saturday in near synchrony.
Maybe it was Mother Nature who had decided that winter had lasted long enough and that the first weekend in May was the time to deliver a full dose of spring.
Or maybe the good people of Shell Lake and surrounding areas have earned it by laying out the big-hearted small town welcome mat.
Either way, the 2022 Governor’s Fishing Open at Shell Lake will go down as one of the most successful in the event’s 56-year history.
As the banquet social hour began at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Shell Lake Arts Center, the mercury hit 73 degrees under sunny skies. At the same time, Milwaukee, chased by a northeast wind off Lake Michigan, was 52 years old.
If you listen to the woods, you might hear a blissful “aaaahhh” emanating from northwest Wisconsin. The ice that covered parts of Shell Lake until April 27 was the end of it.
It was a new explosion of colors – yellow-headed blackbirds and Baltimore orioles – and sounds – wood frogs and spring peepers.
And the lake itself was rising rapidly after months of cold sleep. The water temperature was 57 degrees Friday at Shell Lake Landing, an increase of 18 degrees in just one week.
“We didn’t think we’d need sunscreen (in gift bags given to attendees), but I agree with the weather proving us wrong,” said Kaitlin Hanson, of the Washburn County Tourism Association. .
No apology was necessary. Everyone loved the weather.
This included Governor Tony Evers, several members of his cabinet, Department of Natural Resources fisheries and law enforcement personnel, local residents, business owners and members of the press.
The Governor’s Peach Opening was started by Governor Warren Knowles in 1966. Knowles, a Wisconsin native, University of Wisconsin Law School graduate and World War II veteran, served three terms as two years as governor from 1965 to 1971.
Knowles was an avid fisherman who knew fishing was good for the soul as well as the economy. The Republican governor is known for his pro-conservation and pro-environment policies; the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, Wisconsin’s flagship public land acquisition program, is named after him.
The event is an opportunity to shine a light on Wisconsin’s fishing opportunities and tourism industry. Every governor after Knowles has continued the tradition, held on the first day of Wisconsin’s general fishing season.
The organizers usually choose a new venue each year.
This year represented a changing of the guard as Northwestern Wisconsin Tourism Marketing Committee ITBEC took over the reins of Wisconsin Indian Head Country, Inc., which had led it for decades.
The ITBEC (International Trade, Business & Economic Development Council) group covers 12 northwestern Wisconsin counties – Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Chippewa, Douglas, Iron, Price, Polk, Rusk, Sawyer and Washburn – and markets the region to visitors. .
The 2022 event included a banquet on Friday evening and a host of events on Saturday, including fishing, dining, educational exhibits, tours of local sites and businesses, and a train ride.
Friday’s banquet was held at the Shell Lake Arts Center, which is also home to the local ball.
The facility was adorned with a display featuring vintage launches, or rowboats, and other outdoor memorabilia.
Shell Lake owes its name to the freshwater bivalves found on its shores. The lakes cover 2,513 acres and have a maximum depth of 36 feet.
It is known for very good water quality and good fishing, even earning the nickname “the walleye fishing capital of Wisconsin”.
In addition to walleye, the lake is home to northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, black crappie, bluegill and muskellunge.
Governor Evers congratulated event organizers on the Family Fishing Day portion of Saturday’s agenda. The MNR had its “Fishmobile”, a loaner of traveling fishing equipment and an educational trailer, on site.
Teaching children to fish is important for many reasons, Evers said.
“Fishing is fun, challenging and important to the economic development of the state,” Evers said. “We need to keep working to bring families and people together outdoors, and fishing is the perfect way to do that.”
He also said he was looking forward to fishing on Saturday and having the chance to break his personal record for opening the Governor’s fishery: a 22-inch-long northern pike.
Craig Roberts, MNR fisheries biologist for Washburn County, said Shell was a “good multi-species lake” with an abundant population of 16-24 inch northerns. He said anglers would have a good chance of catching a few when it opens, along with smallmouth bass and walleye.
This all sounded good to me, especially since I would be fishing with my friend Dave Zeug from Shell Lake.
Dave, a retired MNR regional director who also served as mayor of Shell Lake, and his wife Wanda have lived on the lake since 1991 and have come to know it well.
When we left Saturday at 6:15 a.m., the sun was rising in a clear sky; a moderate breeze from the SSE scraped the water.
A pair of common loons paddled along the shore, alternately snorkeling and watching a growing fleet of fishing boats on the lake.
“It’s a popular lake, even more so this year,” Zeug said as he cut the engine near a basketball court-sized island of cattails. “Plenty of room, though. I think we can find a few (fish).”
We started throwing a 3 inch white plastic cue on a jig head towards the cattails and working it with a steady retrieve.
After 5 minutes, Zeug’s line stopped.
“Damn, I think it’s a fish,” he said as his rod twitched.
Of course it was. It turned out to be a 22-inch North, which was landed and put in the livewell.
Northern pike is a delicious table delicacy and this size, which is abundant at Shell Lake, meets the definition of smart and selective harvesting.
My trick was next, with a north of 21 inches on the same type of lure.
We fished around the island for 50 minutes, catching and keeping three more norths, all between 20 and 24 inches.
The next stop was a shallow, shallow bay.
Yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds jousted among the cattails as we used the bow-mounted trolling motor to slowly navigate the 2-4 foot deep water. A bald eagle watched the proceedings from a high branch of a white pine.
We switched to floating lures and kept them close to the surface with slow recovery.
Throwing as close to shore as possible over the next hour, we fired strikes from three more northerners. Two were released and one, who was hooked deep, went into the livewell.
Then Zeug connected on a big 18 inch mouth, which was released.
At 8:30 a.m. the mercury was 56 and the wind was blowing at 11 mph from the S.
“Not bad for early May in the north,” Zeug said.
It just wasn’t bad. It was spectacular.
Around 9 a.m., a formation of boats caught our eye in the southern part of the lake.
In the center we recognized Captain Barb Carey of Oxford piloting her boat, with Governor Evers and Jane McMahon of Baraboo at her side.
An MNR guard boat and a photo boat were nearby.
Carey, founder of Wisconsin Women Fish, put Governor Evers on the fish for the second time during her term. This time he landed a 22-inch north, matching his previous best.
When Zeug and I went to Shell Lake Memorial Park mid-morning, the stories that poured in were overwhelmingly positive.
“Everybody’s catching,” DNR secretary Preston Cole said.
A fish fry was hosted by the Lions Club from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The temperature had risen to 72 when I filed this report at 3 p.m.
Even better action should wait tonight, Zeug said, as the water heats up in the bays.
It sounded promising.
But in my book, the planets had already aligned for the 2022 Governor’s Peach Open.
The lake had provided action and beautiful scenery, the community facilities had shone and the people had offered genuine hospitality.
I never had the privilege of speaking to Governor Knowles. But I think this Shell Lake event was exactly what he had in mind when he started this tradition 56 years ago.