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Late spring complicates scenario going into Saturday’s walleye opener

This is going to be one (fill in the blank here) Minnesota walleye opener. …

That’s the consensus of fisheries managers and fishing experts going into Saturday’s opening day of walleye season in Minnesota. With ice still covering lakes in the northern half of the state, including such perennial favorites as Upper Red, Lake of the Woods and Lake Bemidji, there are a lot of unknowns.

"I think the ice pack in the northern part of the state is going to be questionable to be out by May 11," said Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "From an angling perspective, people are going to need to adjust if they’re on one of those larger lakes or consider some of the smaller lakes or flowages and travel south.

"We’re easily seven to 14 days behind normal."

Nowhere, perhaps, is the uncertainty greater than in Park Rapids, host community for this year’s annual Governor's Walleye Opener.

"The weather’s nice, birds are back — and the ice is thick," joked Jason Durham, a longtime Park Rapids-area fishing guide who is scheduled to host Gov. Mark Dayton on Saturday morning on Fish Hook Lake. "We still have a snowball’s chance of seeing open water by the opener."

Early this past week, Fish Hook Lake was covered with more than 2 feet of ice, Durham said, but tributaries such as the Fish Hook River, which traditionally offers good walleye action early in the year, at least offer options for event organizers.

According to the DNR, the latest ice-out recorded on Fish Hook before this year was April 29, 2011.

"The couple of things we’ve got going for us is one, we have history on our side," Durham said. "Generally, Fish Hook is an early ice-out lake. The other is current, and they’re starting to open up now, and that open water just breeds more open water.

"We’ve taken care of every variable that we can, but unfortunately, we can’t influence the weather. It is what it is, and we’ll just have to roll with it."

Closures likely

Because of the late ice-out, which in turn has delayed this year’s spawning run, Drewes said the DNR this week will have to decide whether to implement temporary closures on flowages such as the Mississippi chain, the Tamarack River that flows into Upper Red Lake and other places where spawning walleyes traditionally congregate.

"We anticipate more spring closures than normal," Drewes said. "Some will likely extend into the opening of fishing season. We’ll hold off as long as we can to make that decision but will try to make it in a timely manner. We’ll make that decision early this week."

Despite the uncertainties, Durham said he’s not nervous about hosting the governor. And while he also is a member of the pro staff for Clam Corp., which manufactures the Fish Trap series of portable ice houses, Durham says he’s not planning to pack the ice fishing gear as a contingency.

"There have been a lot of jokes about that, and even up to about a week ago, it looked like that could have been a reality," Durham said early this week. "With each passing day now, with the warmer weather, I definitely believe nobody is going to be on the ice in our area, which is a good thing. The latest I’ve ice fished is May 1."

Durham, who is co-chairman of the host committee for the Governor's Walleye Opener, said organizers of the big event are as prepared as they can be, regardless of what Mother Nature holds in store.

"At one point, people were nervous and frustrated, but it’s come to a point of acceptance," Durham said. "We’re going to celebrate no matter what. It’s about our community, and yet my prediction would be that we’re going to have some pretty good fishing."

Upbeat outlook

That’s the upside to a late spring. In the Park Rapids area, Durham said he expects the walleyes to be shallow and concentrated near current or windswept areas with a gravel or rubble bottom.

Smaller, shallower lakes that warm up faster also could provide better-than-normal early season walleye fishing. Once the ice goes out, the DNR’s Drewes said some of the region’s perennial walleye favorites should offer gangbusters fishing.

"I think Red’s going to be nuts," Drewes said. "We also have good walleyes on Leech, and perch abundance is down a bit so I’m expecting good things there. The Cass chain is always good, but on a late opener, it could be red hot.

"Lake of the Woods will be good," he added, even if it’s limited to Four-Mile Bay, the only part of the lake with open water so far. "Walleye numbers are down a bit from past years, but a slower year on Lake of the Woods will still be pretty darn good."

Late springs also tend to produce better hatches because there’s less chance of sudden temperature drops after the fish spawn. Call it an investment in the future.

"The fish will adjust," Drewes said. "They’ll adapt and do quite fine. It’s the anglers that will have more difficulty adjusting, given the late ice-out."

Article by Brad Dokken of Forum News Service.

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