GARRISON - It could have been mistaken for a covert operation.

Under the guise of darkness, the two boats glided quietly across the lake. There was a full moon, but the boats bobbed mostly outside its reach. It was quiet, the lulling sound of the waves and boat motors barely discernible.

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The driver of one of the boats motioned to the other, and his voice cut through the cold night-early morning.

"At 12:02 in 7 1/2 with a split shot and a clown."

The driver of the other boat responded. Message received.

There was a time when, communicating with fellow members of his party in another boat, Randy Hansen might have used codes to keep his boat's successes a secret. But this was no spy-speak.

Bathed in the taillights of a truck backing a boat into Lake Mille Lacs, an angler motored his boat away from the dock at the Myr Mar access north of Garrison just before the walleye season opened at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.

One minute after the 2009 Minnesota fishing season officially opened (kickoff was 12:01 a.m. Saturday), in Hansen's boat, Mark Jarboe of Lake Shore landed quite possibly the first walleye on Lake Mille Lacs, and maybe in the state, this season - a 19 1/2-incher in 7 1/2 feet of water using a split-shot weight and a Rapala known as the Clown.

By 2 a.m. Saturday, the Hansen crew, which numbered 16, spread out in several boats, had caught five walleyes, including two keepers at 17 3/4 inches each.

While most anglers fishing the season opener didn't hit the water until first light or later Saturday, Hansen, 53, of Brainerd has long dropped a line the moment the season started. It's a tradition his father embraced when Randy was a child. He figures he's fished the dark of early opening morning on Mille Lacs for nearly 50 years. And while his father died 16 years ago, the outing remains mostly a family affair, with Hansen's brother Rick, brothers-in-law and nephews getting in on the action, along with a handful of Rick's old college buddies.

Randy Hansen of Nisswa handled the first walleye caught by Mark Jarboe at 12:02 a.m. Saturday on Lake Mille Lacs. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.

"I've been doing it since I was a kid," Randy said of the very early morning opener. "It's a family tradition. It used to be a lot of the neighbors. Everyone came home for the opener. Dad died 16 years ago, but we kept the tradition going."

The Hansen crew wasn't alone on Mille Lacs as Friday turned to Saturday. But Randy said there were fewer boats than usual on the lake for the opener kickoff. There wasn't a huge line at the Myr Mar access just north of Garrison, although more boats lined up in the minutes just before midnight.

The Hansen group gathered Friday night at Twin Pines Resort in Garrison prior to fishing the 2009 Minnesota fishing opener when it kicked off at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

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For the Hansen bunch, the weekend kicked off with golf at Ruttger's on Friday morning, followed by prep work and poker back at the group's cabin at Twin Pines Resort in Garrison. Randy said they typicaly fish for about three hours early Saturday morning, get some sleep, then head to the Crosby-Ironton mine pits for some trout fishing early Saturday afternoon, then back to Mille Lacs for an evening fish.

Jarboe was the big poker winner. And landing the first fish netted him a few more bucks - the group has competitions for first fish, most fish and biggest fish.

Pulling away from the dock on Lake Mille Lacs, Jason Rogers (left), Randy Hansen. Mike Gryte and Mark Jarboe headed out early Saturday morning. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

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"Great," Jarboe said when asked how it felt to haul in his first walleye of the season - even if he had to release it because of the protective slot on the lake. "It's been nine months or so."

The group planned to go to Grand Casino Mille Lacs for breakfast after getting some sleep following the Saturday morning fish. Jarboe appeared ready to go at 12:02 a.m.

Mike Gryte (left) readied the net for Mark Jarboe's walleye while Randy Hansen looked on. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

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"It's my night," he said after his catch.

"Let's go to the casino."

BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at brian.peterson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5864.