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Stage set for good Minnesota walleye opener

Duane Peterson of Bemidji releases a walleye in April 2015 on the Rainy River near Clementson, Minn. Walleye again will take center stage Saturday during Minnesota's Fishing Opener.(Brad Dokken photo)1 / 2
Henry Drewes, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.2 / 2

The ice went out early, walleyes have spawned, and the stage is set for a great Minnesota fishing opener.

Come 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 13, walleyes take center stage.

Henry Drewes, northwest regional fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said the early spring means anglers might not find as many walleyes in traditional current areas, where the fish stage to spawn, as they would in a normal opener.

"They may not be in their typical opening day spots, but they're probably not far from there," Drewes said. "What I would tell people—and it's kind of my strategy—is I would fish this year where I would normally fish the second week of the season."

That usually means similar depths near or along shoreline breaks, Drewes said.

Weather, as always, is the wild card in predicting opening day fishing prospects, and so far, at least, the outlook is favorable.

"It looks like a nice warming trend, which should bring water temperatures on a lot of lakes back up into the 50s," Drewes said. "I think the walleye lakes are going to perform very well."

Big lake bonanza

Nowhere, perhaps, is that more apparent than on Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake, two of Minnesota's premier walleye fisheries. Population surveys on Lake of the Woods have shown "way above average" catches of walleyes and saugers in test nets, Drewes said, and the 2011 and 2013 year-classes are especially abundant.

Fishing this past winter was excellent, spring fishing on the Rainy River was very good, and there's no reason anglers shouldn't expect more of the same come opening day, Drewes said.

"There are a lot of harvestable fish from 13 to 18 or 19 inches," he said. "There's also a lot of real small walleye in the 6- to 10-inch range that will be taking people's bait, but there are lots of fish to harvest."

As if anticipation for the opener wasn't high enough, Lake of the Woods remains a premier destination for walleyes in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot and larger, Drewes said.

"We're pretty excited about that," he said. "It should be pretty darn good up there."

With the early spawn, more walleyes likely will have moved out of the Rainy River back into Lake of the Woods, Drewes said, but the river remains a good Plan B if the wind blows,

"They don't all leave" the river, he said.

On Upper Red, the big news is a bag limit that's more liberal than previous openers since 2006. Anglers on Upper Red will be able to keep four walleyes, including one longer than 17 inches.

As on Lake of the Woods, the 2011 and 2013 hatches are driving the fishery.

"The new regulation is a little more relaxed than we've had for the last number of openers but should be quite attractive for anglers," Drewes said. The early spring likely will mean fewer walleyes stacked up near the mouth of the Tamarack River, and Drewes suggests spreading out and focusing on shoreline breaks instead.

Another opening day favorite is Leech Lake, where the outlook also is favorable, Drewes said.

Anglers on Leech can keep four walleyes with a 20- to 26-inch protected slot and one fish over 26 inches allowed.

"There are real consistent year-classes of fish from 12 inches to 27 inches just solid," Drewes said. "There is excellent walleye abundance and really nice-size distribution."

Good access

With the early spring, Drewes said crews from the DNR Parks and Trails Division got a jumpstart on getting docks installed and boat ramps repaired for the opener.

"There should be no issues with accessing your waters for fishing," Drewes said. "That's one real advantage of an earlier spring."

Bait supplies shouldn't be a problem, either.

"I haven't heard a single bait store talking about not being able to get bait," Drewes said.

This year's Governor's Walleye Opener puts the spotlight on the Mississippi River in the St. Cloud, Minn., area. Across the state, anticipation is building for opening day.

"I think the table is set," Drewes said. "Keep that warming trend going."

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.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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