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Paul Nelson column for May 1: Walleyes spawning as anglers prepare for opener

The ice is gone from lakes in the Bemidji area. Anglers have one week to get ready for the opener. The season for walleyes, sauger, northern pike and trout living in lakes opens at 12:01 a.m. on May 9.

The bass (May 23) and muskie (June 6) seasons open later in the spring, to give them a chance to spawn before anglers are allowed to pursue them.

Walleyes spawn up many of the rivers and streams connected to the area lakes. Department of Natural Resources employees have been actively stripping walleye eggs in several locations to provide fry and fingerlings for their stocking programs.

Many lakes respond well to walleye fry stocking, so the eggs are stripped, hatched and then stocked directly into the lakes.

Some lakes respond better to walleye fingerling stocking, usually because the lakes have substantial sunfish and crappie populations that feed on the walleye fry, which reduces the stocking success.

A portion of the walleye fry hatched each year by the DNR are stocked into freeze-out ponds, where they grow all summer before being seined out in the fall and stocked into lakes as fingerlings.

Walleye populations in most lakes in the Bemidji area are maintained solely by natural reproduction. Stocking is used to boost walleye populations in lakes with poor spawning success or to jump start lakes where the walleye population has dropped for other reasons.

Walleyes are a big part of the tourism industry in the Bemidji area. If the walleyes are there, the anglers will come. If the walleye fishing is poor, anglers will go somewhere else with better fishing to spend their vacation dollars.

The Bemidji area is surrounded by many excellent lakes for walleyes. Most of the best walleye lakes are multi-species lakes, with good fishing for other several other species like northern pike, muskies, largemouth bass, perch, crappies and sunfish.

The Mississippi River runs through many of the better known walleye lakes in the Bemidji area, with a series of dams between many of the larger lakes to control water levels.

The first chain of lakes on the Mississippi River is the Lake Bemidji Chain. The walleyes move freely between the dams, with walleyes often traveling through several lakes in the spring to reach their preferred spawning sites.

The largest lake in a chain is usually the home lake for the majority of the walleye population in the system.

Each of the smaller lakes in a chain has their own resident population of walleyes, but spawning runs in the spring can concentrate walleyes into the smaller lakes.

Walleyes spawning in rivers usually finish spawning earlier than walleyes spawning in lakes, because of the differences in water temperature between lakes and rivers.

When the walleye season opens, many river spawning walleyes will still be still feeding their way back into their home lakes. Male walleyes typically recover more quickly than female walleyes and stop and feed along the way.

Female walleyes often head right back to deep water in their home lake, only stopping briefly along the way to feed. Female walleyes may take a couple of weeks to recover from the spawn, before heading into the shallows to resume normal feeding patterns.

The best walleye lakes early in the season are often lakes with the warmest water. Upper Red Lake is famous for excellent walleye fishing early in the season because the stained shallow water heats up more quickly than other walleye lakes.

Bemidji and Cass Lake are cold, deep lakes, so many of their walleyes are usually still in transit when the season opens, which improves the walleye fishing in the connecting lakes.

Other large walleye lakes like Winnibigoshish and Leech have shallow bays connected to the main lake, so many of the walleyes may still be in the connecting waters when the season opens.

Anglers 16 years and older are required to purchase 2009 Minnesota fishing licenses after May 1. Non-residents may want to check the regulations for details about possession limits and licensing options.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by email at