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MINNESOTA WALLEYE OPENER PREVIEW: Late spring means 'different' walleye opener

A walleye sits in a net during the 2016 Minnesota fishing opener on Cut Foot Sioux Lake north of Deer River, Minn. With this year's late spring, a slow presentation such as jigging with a minnow will be a good bet for coaxing walleyes into biting. Minnesota's 2018 fishing opener is Saturday, May 12. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)1 / 4
Henry Drewes, Minnesota DNR2 / 4
Co-owners Aaron Guthrie (left) and Aaron Schmitz (right) recently opened Northwoods Bait and Tackle in Bemidji. Ethan Rogers (middle) is the store's manager. Guthrie said conditions are shaping up nicely in the Bemidji area for Minnesota's walleye opener, which gets underway Saturday, May 12. (Photo/ Jordan Shearer | Forum News Service) 3 / 4
David Dragon of the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., holds a 29-inch walleye sampled Thursday, May 3, during the DNR's annual spring electrofishing assessment on the Rainy River near Birchdale, Minn. More walleyes could be in the river and adjacent Four-Mile Bay for this year's Minnesota fishing opener because of the late spring and lingering ice on Lake of the Woods.(Photo/ Minnesota DNR)4 / 4

If you're one of those goofball anglers thinking it would be fun to go ice fishing on Minnesota's fishing opener, prepare to be disappointed.

There very likely will be ice floating around some northern Minnesota lakes come opening day, but you'll need a boat to reach it.

That annual rite of spring known as the Minnesota walleye opener kicks off at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 12.

"A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking there was no chance we'd have ice-out on anything north of (U.S.) Highway 2, but it seems like we've been making progress," said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "I do think there'll be some ice around, but I think there'll be more open water than we were expecting a couple of weeks ago."

This year's prolonged winter and late spring draws comparisons to 2013, a year Fish Hook Lake near Park Rapids, Minn., had too much ice to safely launch a boat for the Governor's Fishing Opener. That forced fishing guide Jason Durham, the governor's host, to keep his lines in the Fish Hook River instead.

Still, it didn't take Gov. Mark Dayton more than about 15 minutes to catch a walleye in Durham's boat in the wee hours of opening day. Several other lakes across northern Minnesota also still had ice for the 2013 opener.

Lakes are open in the Willmar Lakes area, site of this year's Governor's Fishing Opener.

Given the late spring, rivers, creeks and other areas with current will hold plenty of walleyes this year, too, Drewes said. Walleyes typically spawn when water temperatures reach the low- to mid-40s, and current areas are magnets for spawning fish.

"With a high level of certainty, there will be fish actively spawning," Drewes said. "They're going to be shallow near creeks, rivers, inlets and spawning shoals. The likelihood of catching large females will be low."

Likely exceptions

The exception could be large rivers such as the Rainy River, which has been ice-free more than two weeks. Walleyes in the Rainy River were actively spawning early this past week, Drewes said. Those fish should be recovered by opening day and working their way into lower reaches of the river and adjacent Four-Mile Bay.

At the same time, warmer water in the Rainy should hold more baitfish than the colder waters of Lake of the Woods. That could keep walleyes in the river longer than springs when Lake of the Woods by the opener has been ice-free several days.

"I think from a spawning standpoint, we're probably about 10 days behind schedule" on the Rainy River, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn. "It's going to be a little different for anglers this year, and there likely will be more fish in the river near the mouth of the river and Four-Mile Bay than what they normally see."

In the Bemidji area, where anglers as always will have an abundance of opening day options, Aaron Guthrie of Northwoods Bait and Tackle said lakes such as Lake Beltrami and Big Bass were ice-free early this past week, and Lake Bemidji should be open a few days before Saturday's walleye opener. A couple of warm days with strong south winds early in the week resulted in big changes to ice conditions on Lake Bemidji, he said.

"It's busting up really fast," Guthrie said of Lake Bemidji. "Water temperatures are not as warm as they normally would be, and walleyes may not have transitioned up to shallower water, but I definitely think they're going to be hungry."

Supplies of leeches, crawlers, fathead minnows and sucker minnows are good, Guthrie said, and the bait shop is working to round up spottail shiners, a perennially popular bait choice for Bemidji-area anglers on the opener.

"We've reached out to a lot of different trappers and are waiting for the water" to be ice-free, Guthrie said. "We probably will be able to get some golden (shiners), but we're waiting for the spottails and are optimistic that we'll have some."

Walleyes look good

Regardless of water or ice conditions on opening day, walleye populations in large Northwest Region lakes such as Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Leech and Cass are looking great, the DNR's Drewes said.

"On the fish front, we're in really good shape," Drewes said. "We've got a pretty good series of year classes from 2011 through 2016. There's a solid distribution of fish sizes from 14 to 19 inches in a lot of our lakes."

A year-class refers to fish recruited to the population from a specific year's hatch.

The 2013 year-class is especially strong and will be anywhere from 12 inches to 18 inches long depending on the lake, Drewes said.

"Those are going to be the bread-and-butter fish this year," he said.

The late ice-out means DNR crews will be scrambling to get docks in place and repair ramps in need of fixing.

"We're in a scurry right now—everybody's scurrying around," Drewes said. "Bait stores are going to have trouble getting shiners—they're going to be in tough supply because of the late ice-out—people opening up their cabins are getting a late start. It's just going to be a scurry to get this season underway."

Anglers fishing Upper Red Lake will have to be aware of low water levels and be careful when accessing the lake, Drewes cautions.

"Red Lake is way below spring normal, and it may be difficult getting out of the Tamarack River, particularly if there's a wind," Drewes said. "The lake is low, all the lakes around Bemidji are fairly low. The Rainy River is low, and Lake of the Woods is going to be low.

"There are some situations where people launching boats or going into streams or rivers are going to have to be cautious."

Anglers also should check the DNR website for a listing of waters that might be closed to fishing on the opener, such as the stretch of Mississippi River from below the Otter Tail Power Dam to Wolf Lake, Drewes said. The Tamarack River, which flows into Upper Red, is closed to fishing through Friday, May 11, but will be open for Saturday's fishing opener, Drewes said.

Minnesota holiday

No two openers are the same, but the tradition is a constant. Nearly half a million anglers, give or take a few thousand, hit their favorite lake or stream for the Minnesota walleye opener, based on DNR estimates.

"It's a Minnesota holiday," said Guthrie of Northwoods Bait and Tackle. "Everybody's been cooped up for so long. They haven't been on open water, and for most people, this is their first time in the boat for the year.

"People plan a year in advance, they take their vacation time from work. It's something where you can go have camaraderie with your family, your friends, enjoy the weekend and just get out and catch a walleye—or try to catch a walleye."

That goal definitely should be in reach, Drewes said; especially for anglers who stick to cold-water tactics such as jigging with a minnow, a time-proven opening day technique.

"I think there's going to be plenty of fish—people just have to use real cold water tactics and watch what happens here in the next week with the weather and ice-out and boat ramps," Drewes said. "It's going be a different opener, but there's no reason we don't catch fish."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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