Even under bluebird skies, 'Bro' finds the walleyes
CASS LAKE, Minn.—You play the cards you're dealt when picking a date on the calendar to go fishing, and Brian Brosdahl's hand on this June morning was stacked with ample doses of sun, high barometric pressure and light to variable winds.
That's hardly a royal flush when the destination is gin-clear Cass Lake and the target is walleyes, a sometimes fickle fish known to favor low-light conditions and choppy waves.
No worries, Brosdahl said; we'd get our fish.
"They'll still bite," he said. "You just have to appeal to their animal instincts."
Known to pretty much everyone in the fishing world as "Bro," Brosdahl, 51, of Max, Minnesota, is one of the most recognizable and well-liked anglers in the industry. He runs Bro's Guide Service, offering guided trips on lakes throughout the Northland both summer and winter, and fishes the occasional bass and walleye tournament.
We've known each other some 20 years, Brosdahl and I, and have fished together several times. Among the more memorable was a blustery day on Cass in June 2012, when screaming west winds kept most anglers off the water.
We rocked and rolled in big waves, but we still caught walleyes.
The conditions were a marked contrast to this day's calm winds and bluebird skies, but that didn't dampen Brosdahl's optimism.
"I always like a little bit of cloud cover, and I always like to have some waves," he said. "Without waves, it's a lot tougher. All of these lakes here are wind-driven, but like I say, the best time to go is when you can because you can't pick your weather, and we've put together limits on tough days.
"You can't catch fish sitting at home or sitting in the cabin."
We certainly had technology on our side. Brosdahl's decked-out Ranger FS621 walleye boat is powered by a 300-horse Evinrude outboard and includes such high-tech gadgetry as Humminbird Helix 10 and Helix 12 fish finders with digital sonar, GPS and side-imaging capability.
Known in the jargon as mega-imaging, the Helix technology lets users see what's below the surface of the water for up to 100 feet on either side of the boat.
Fish, sunken logs, rocks, you name it; if it's down there, Bro can see it. And once he sees fish, Brosdahl's Minn-Kota trolling motor with "spot lock" capability lets him hold the boat in place without dropping an anchor.
That's ideal for jigging, Brosdahl says, and allows him to fish where the fish are; there's no guesswork.
"It's like stealing a cookie without Grandma looking," he says of the the technology.
Brosdahl has a wealth of proven Cass Lake walleye spots marked on his GPS, and we hop from waypoint to waypoint under the bright sun, pitching small jigs and golden shiners on shallow flats and humps adjacent to deeper water.
There's a cadence to this technique: Cast the jig and let it sink to the bottom. Give the occasional gentle twitch on the way back to the boat. Feel the bite, speed the retrieve and give the rod a gentle sweep. Repeat.
Some days, when there's more wind and more cloud cover, a more aggressive cadence works better, Brosdahl says. On this day, less is more.
"It's just a patience thing," he said. "You miss a lot of fish on a high-pressure day, but it's still a lot of fun."
As June wanes, walleyes on Cass and other northern Minnesota lakes go deeper and begin to favor leeches and crawlers over minnows.
Many anglers will shift from jigs to live bait rigs; not Bro.
"I guess it's just me and my old-fashioned way of fishing," he said. "Nightcrawlers and leeches work just fine, and rigs work just fine, but I like jigs because they don't tangle, you don't have to feed line out and you just set the hook.
"A jigging bite is always a guide's dream. I'll jig when everybody is rigging all summer."
Guiding isn't Brosdahl's only footprint in the fishing industry. Known for his trademark red goatee, Bro also spends several weeks from late fall through early winter traveling the Ice Belt, logging thousands of miles with his wife, Heather, promoting the wares of sponsor companies through appearances at retail outlets and shows such as the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show.
A series of Frabill ice fishing rod-and-reel combos sports the Bro brand, and Bemidji-based Northland Fishing Tackle carries a line of "Bro Bug" panfish jigs.
Panfish are his passion, Brosdahl admits, but walleyes are his bread-and-butter as a guide. He no longer guides for panfish because too many clients over the years made return trips to the small lakes where he guided them.
Big bluegills are a fragile resource and susceptible to overfishing, Brosdahl says. Too many clients wanted to bring home limits of 10-inch bluegills.
"I love bluegills too much to guide for them," he said. "There's a little bit of greed in panfish (angling). There are good, happy people that just want to catch them, but I'd run into the greedy ones, too."
That kind of mentality doesn't sit well with Brosdahl. And so he sticks with walleyes and, on occasion, smallmouth bass.
Day by day
Where Brosdahl guides often changes from day to day. Wind direction, fishing pressure and the ability and mindset of the people fishing with him all are factors, Brosdahl says.
"I'm not faithful to any lake," he said. "If you're staying at a lake, that's one thing. But I'm going to compare my bites and go to the bite that has the best opportunity for people to get their limit of fish and, depending on the time of year, big fish."
Cass, though, is a staple. One of Minnesota's top 10 large walleye lakes, the 16,000-acre lake has a healthy walleye population, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says. The lake is infested with zebra mussels, which has resulted in water that's even clearer than before the infestation, a trend the DNR expects to continue. Results from a 2017 summer survey showed strong numbers of 14- to 17-inch walleyes on Cass, and fish from a record hatch in 2013 made up more than half of the walleyes sampled.
Those walleyes average about 16 inches and are ideal for the frying pan. There are no special regulations on Cass, and anglers can keep six walleyes, with one over 20 inches.
Cass also produces the occasional trophy walleye, Brosdahl says, though they're not common.
"Where can you go to catch a 28- to 30-inch walleye?" he said. "This is a viable lake for that."
Hits and misses
Despite the weather conditions, every spot Brosdahl hits produces bites, and we miss several fish. The screen of his Helix 12 side imager regularly shows walleyes and the occasional northern pike or muskie.
By midafternoon, Brosdahl's prediction of a walleye limit is within reach; if not for missed bites and a couple of boatside escapes, we'd be done.
"Let's go where the fish are bigger and bite faster," he'd say when a spot went cold, and off to a new waypoint we'd go. Or, "These are dumb fish, I like them—my favorite flavor," if he imaged walleyes in a new spot.
The last walleye hit the livewell about six hours into the day, and we headed back to the launch at Stony Point Resort with the satisfaction of knowing we'd scratched out a limit of 15- to 19-inch walleyes under tough conditions.
"I knew we were going to get a limit, and I knew it even with the weather the way it was," Brosdahl said.
We see walleyes, pike, muskies and even a loon swimming in the clear water below the boat. For Brosdahl, it's just another day in the office—the office of the great outdoors.
"It's not the easy days that help you figure things out, it's the tough days," he said. "I still enjoy it. There are times you can bang out a limit in 20 minutes and what fun is that? Then I'd have to go weed whack or something.
"I just like being out here," he adds. "The reason I guide is I like being on the water. You're in cool places all the time."
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