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'A matter of changing mindsets': Local professionals offer solutions as bait shops face minnow shortages

There’s more to bear in mind this weekend while preparing to cast a line on Minnesota's fishing opener — like a massive minnow shortage hitting bait shops all across the state.

Despite fishing strategy or whether or not there will be enough minnows for the Minnesota fishing opener on Saturday, one thing for certain is every lake in the area is going to be bustling with boats. Being prepared and having patience going into the weekend is a must.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Usually, the unpredictable spring weather here in Minnesota is the main concern as anglers gear up for the fishing opener.

This year, though, there’s more to bear in mind this weekend while preparing to cast a line — like a massive minnow shortage hitting bait shops all across the state.

Just like an angler isn’t sure if they’ll catch a fish, owners of Ridgetop Outdoors Justin and Brittany Schuver aren’t sure if they’ll have enough minnows to hand out on opener.

“(Our inventory) has gotten better since last week. We have some minnows in stock right now, but we're a little bit nervous,” Brittany said. “One of our main wholesalers said normally on the Monday before opener he has about 400 gallons of fathead minnows ready to be delivered, but this year he only has 16 gallons.”

There are a couple of reasons why this might happen, both environmental and human-caused. Winter kill is the loss of fish in the winter due to a lack of oxygen in a body of water, and that seems to be the most obvious environmental factor behind recent declines in the statewide minnow harvest.


“The temperature of the water has to come up really fast in order for the spottails and the shiners to move into our traps,” Brittany said. “With such a late ice-out this year, we are seeing that spottail and shiner issue that we had last year might duplicate itself this year and they'll have to be trapped a little bit later than usual."

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Bill Powell of Fred's Bait in Deer River holds several spottail shiner minnows during an afternoon of minnow trapping near Deer River, Minn.
(Sam Cook/Duluth News Tribune)

While fathead minnows and spottail shiners are the two of the most important species used for bait in Minnesota, these fish experience natural die-offs every year, especially during the harsh winters. Thick ice coverage and deep snow may be good for ice-fishing, but it also prevents sunlight into the underwater habitats, lowering the amount of oxygen in the water.

“We had a lot of snow this year, and a lot of snow on top of the ice makes it more difficult for the sun to penetrate through the ice and feed that vegetation that lives under the water,” Brittany said. “That vegetation is the habitat to those fathead minnows so a lot of our trappers are going out to these ponds where they've always been able to trap them and they're finding more and more dead minnows on the shores than they're finding in their traps.”

As the Schuver’s and Ridgetop Outdoors dive into their third fishing opener after opening two years ago, they’re definitely feeling the decline in the minnow harvests. Brittany says since there’s nothing anyone can do about it, anglers should keep an open mind going into this weekend and maybe even try using something new.

“The benefit is, there's more than just minnows that we can fish with; it's just a different type of fishing that we have to get used to. It's a matter of changing our mindsets on what we need in order to fish,” Brittany said. “Maybe try the nightcrawlers, try the leeches and waxworms because we’re not having any issues with them right now. Then, moving into plastics — a lot of people have not gotten used to plastics yet. We have to change our mindsets on how we've always done things and work towards doing things a little bit differently based on what we have.”

Predicting a successful opener

Luckily, one of Bemidji’s go-to fishing guides, Dick Beardsley , will be among the thousands of anglers hitting the lakes for Minnesota’s opener on Saturday, May 13. And as someone who’s been fishing the area for years, he has a few suggestions to ensure a safe and prosperous weekend, despite the shortage of bait.

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Dick Beardsley holds up a walleye, what most anglers will be targeting opening weekend.
Courtesy / Dick Beardsley

“This year, I'm afraid, there’s a little bit of a minnow shortage,” Beardsley said. “So just take that into account and get your minnows early and hold on to them the best you can. (If you can’t get real minnows), the jigs and the plastics they make now are unbelievable. They look and work almost like a real minnow.”

According to Beardsley, the ice conditions on Bemidji area lakes suffered this winter due to the lower-than-average ice pressure. But even though the ice conditions on Bemidji lakes this winter were near catastrophic, he predicts they will make a more favorable walleye bite this spring.


“I spent so much money on gas just trying to get my roads open (this winter) and then when they’d open up, the next day they'd be flooded out again and I’d have to build another road,” Beardsley said. “There was nowhere near the pressure this winter.”

Because of the low ice pressure making it difficult for anglers to get out on the ice, there was a noticeable decline in wheelhouses out on Lake Bemidji this winter — yet another reason why he predicts a successful opener.

“The South and North ends (of the lake) didn't have near as many houses. It was virtually like a ghost town out on Lake Bemidji,” Beardsley said. “That looks good for the upcoming open water season because there should be a lot more fish left in the lake and you can say that just about on every lake in the whole Bemidji area.”

As Lake Bemidji’s ice officially melted away on May 5 this year, Beardsley says the walleyes are on the move into the more shallow areas of the lake to finish spawning. And with temperatures in the low 70s this week leading into Saturday, he suggests anglers start in the warmer, more shallow areas and move deeper until they find the fish.

“The walleyes are going to be in that transition moving up into shallow water to spawn. Last year, those fish were still up in the Mississippi River for about two days then when they were done spawning they moved back out into the lake,” Beardsley said. “I would tell people that depending on the water temperature, if it's in the mid-to-upper 40s, to look shallow. I would probably start shallow but then work deeper. And as the water warms up if the shiners and other minnows are up in the shallows, the walleyes will be right behind them.”

And if the walleye aren’t biting on Saturday, Beardsley suggests working the muddy and shallow bottoms bays to reel in some crappies.

“By the time the opener comes, the walleye should be out for about a week. But if the walleye bite is slower, the crappie bites up in those shallow water bays and many of our lakes here in the Bemidji area can really get going,” Beardsley said. “So if the walleye aren’t biting, well hey, work some of those real shallow muddy bottom bays and you'll catch a lot of crappies and you'll have a lot of fun.”

Safety first

The slow transition from winter into spring calls for a couple of safety reminders around the open water. Cold water is dangerous and unexpected falls can quickly turn tragic. Beardsley says the easiest and most effective way to stay safe and survive a fall into the cold water is to wear a life jacket.


“A life jacket is a must. In fact, a lot of times in the summertime, I have my life jackets for my guide clients available if they want to wear them. But this time of the year the water is going to be cold,” Beardsley said. “I would highly recommend that everybody wears a life jacket just because if you fall in and that water is only low 40s, maybe mid-40s at best. It doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in so life jackets are a No. 1 priority.”

Anglers fish from the Lake Bemidji Fishing Pier at dawn during Minnesota’s fishing opener in 2020.
Pioneer file photo

Despite fishing strategy or whether or not there will be enough minnows on Saturday, one thing for certain is every lake in the area is going to be bustling with boats. Being prepared and having patience going into the weekend is a must.

“The one thing I always stress on opening weekend is that it's going to be very busy at whatever lake you go to. There's going to be people that have a brand new boat or they’ve never backed up a trailer before and it's going to make you mad,” Beardsley said. “Just offer to help out. Back it up for them if you have to. On opening weekend everybody needs to be patient at the access and if we all do that, we’ll have a great time.”

Lastly, Beardsley reminds anglers that in order to keep lakes bountiful, we must always practice selective harvesting.

“If you catch a 20- to 30-inch female walleye and you can tell that they're still full of eggs, take some pictures, but please put those big girls back because they're they're the fish that keep our lakes so bountiful with all kinds of walleyes,” he left off. “And the biggest thing is just practice selective harvesting, if we do that we'll have great fishing for years to come.”

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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