Anderson: Indicators point to a solid opening Saturday for fishing fans

·5 min read

The answer to the first question anglers are asking on this fishing-opener eve is, "Good," and the answer to their second question is, "Jig and a minnow."

The first question is more important: What's the weather forecast for Saturday?

Good is indeed the answer — with temperatures perhaps touching 70 in parts of the state. A mix of sun and clouds will hang overhead, with winds slight from the south-southeast.

The second answer — jig and a minnow — simplifies what can at times be challenging: How do I catch 'em?

Easy.

Pick up a few jigs, 1⁄16- to ¼-ounce, a few sliding-sinker rigs, and a bag of minnows. Add a rod and reel, a spool of line, and a boat, dock or shoreline.

In the process, try not to overthink the task at hand. Walleyes can be finicky.

But they're not smart.

The trick, especially in this wacky spring, will be finding walleyes, and less so catching them once they're located.

Why wacky?

Consider that Mille Lacs went ice-free this year April 7, about two weeks earlier than the median date of April 25.

Consider also Upper Red Lake, which was ice-free April 3. Upper Red's median ice-out date is nearly a month later, April 29.

Finally, in the Twin Cities, consider Minnetonka: Ice-out this spring was March 30, about two weeks earlier than its April 13 median.

These premature ice-free dates should have been followed (one would think) by warming air temperatures, which in turn would have triggered relatively early walleye-spawning.

But this spring, cool weather throughout Minnesota followed the disappearance of lake ice, which in many cases extended walleye spawning over a longer period than would have been the case had higher temperatures predominated.

"When water warms slowly in spring and over a long period, the spawn tends to extend over a longer period also," said Tom Heinrich, Department of Natural Resources Mille Lacs area fisheries supervisor.

Because Mille Lacs didn't have great ice this winter, it experienced significantly less fishing pressure than it did in the winter of 2019-2020. But the catch rates for each winter were about the same: .07 walleyes caught per hour in 2019-2020, compared to .06 in the winter just ended.

Will the at-times furiously hot open-water Mille Lacs walleye bite of a year ago be repeated this summer? Possibly. But it's also possible walleyes will be comparatively less tempted by baits this summer because the lake has more forage in it this year than it did a year ago.

Yet big crowds are expected Saturday on Mille Lacs, as they are on all of Minnesota's destination walleye lakes.

"We're already seen a lot of trucks and boats coming through town," guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids noted earlier this week.

Neustrom predicts a good shallow-water bite on Leech, Winnie, Cass, Upper Red and other northern lakes.

"Male walleyes should still be hanging around in 7 to 12 feet of water," he said.

Early DNR fishing-license sales show a slight dip from this time a year ago — down 2%. But 2020 was the year of COVID, when record- or near-record numbers of Minnesotans fished. So a falloff of just 2% is considered by many observers to be a win.

Parsing license-sales numbers appears, in fact, to reveal a fishing participation carry-over from last year.

Example: Youth (age 16-17) fishing license sales are down 26% from a year ago (9,907 this year vs. 13,369 last year), probably because most kids are in school this spring, whereas many were not there in person a year ago, due to the pandemic.

But this spring's 9,907 sales figure is still higher than any year (other than 2020) since 2013, when the resident youth licenses were first offered.

Minnesota also might be benefiting by the continued Canada closure, considering that nonresident individual angling licenses were up about a third last year over 2019, and so far they're running 38% higher than a year ago.

Nonresident 14-day married couple, nonresident seven-day angling, and nonresident 72-hour angling license sales also are up significantly this spring.

Guide Tony Roach, who spends a lot of time on Mille Lacs, thinks Saturday's opener will benefit from this week's better-late-than-never rising temperatures.

"I think the bite [on Mille Lacs] will be good," he said. "With the early ice-out and the recent warmer weather, there should be more options available to catch walleyes, whether jigging or rigging. On Mille Lacs, there should be action in the shallows, on gravel bars, and perhaps even on the flats."

In northeastern Minnesota, meanwhile, on Lake Vermilion, a citizens committee is asking anglers to keep fewer fish than allowed by DNR regulations. Vermilion has experienced relatively high fishing pressure in recent years, the group notes, due in part to the Canada closure, and the lake's fishery could benefit from tighter restrictions.

Vermilion's DNR walleye limit is four fish less than 20 inches. The citizens group asks anglers to keep only two walleyes between 12 and 18 inches.

Similarly, the group suggests Vermilion's largemouth bass should be fished catch-and-release only. Crappie, bluegill, perch, northern and muskie limits also are reduced under the recommended guidelines.

"We are trying to encourage 'conservation limits' to help protect the lake with the added pressure of anglers staying in Minnesota to fish as opposed to heading to Canada due to the border still being closed," said Lake Vermilion committee member Brian Anderson.

Final notes: Minnow supplies, including shiners, should be good statewide. Resort restaurants will be open at most locations. Private launches, like the one at West Wind Resort on Upper Red, which was open only to limited use on the first day of fishing last year, will be fully operational Saturday. And fire danger is high in many parts of the state, so caution is urged.

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