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Anticipation builds for Minnesota fishing opener

Richfield, Minn., artist Tim Turenne’s painting of a walleye foraging on minnows is featured on the 2017 Minnesota walleye stamp. The stamp isn't required to fish walleyes in Minnesota, but proceeds from sales of the stamps help fund walleye-related initiatives across the state. Minnesota's walleye season opens Saturday. (Minnesota DNR)1 / 3
Henry Drewes, DNR northwest region fisheries supervisor, Bemidji2 / 3
Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries Chief3 / 3

If Spiderman was a fisherman, his walleye senses would be absolutely tingling with anticipation at the prospect of wetting a line Saturday.

It's the Minnesota walleye opener, and as events on the outdoors calendar go, the annual piscatorial happening is big stuff—and big business.

Fishing contributes $2.4 billion to Minnesota's economy in direct retail sales, ranking the state third in the nation for angler expenditures, federal statistics show. At 32 percent, Minnesota ranks second in resident fishing participation, the Department of Natural Resources says; only Alaska has more.

"It's almost like a holiday in Minnesota," DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira said in a soundbite provided to media in advance of the opener. "Fishing runs right through the very core of our culture here in the state."

There's no fishing event in North Dakota to compare with the Minnesota walleye opener because fishing season is continuous. Still, the passion for walleyes burns just as strong. The northern pike might be North Dakota's state fish, but a majority of anglers favors walleyes.

Walleyes aren't the biggest freshwater fish, and they're certainly not the hardest-fighting.

Still, the attraction is undeniable.

"They are pretty cool-looking," said Henry Drewes, northwest region fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji. "They're a top predator, they're cool-looking, and they have good firm flesh."

Walleyes also have a mild flavor, which adds to the appeal.

"It's not a real 'fishy' flesh, and you can't screw up a walleye—you just can't," Drewes said. "They're also very easy to clean."

No wonder, then, some 500,000 anglers—give or take a few thousand—have tingling walleye senses and will be hitting their favorite lake or river for Saturday's fishing opener. Oh sure, Saturday also marks the statewide opener for northern pike, but let's not kid ourselves.

Walleyes will be the attraction come 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

"They've got that opening day imagery," Drewes said. "They can be very challenging to catch, but the table fare is what really attracts people to walleye."

Strong outlook

These are good days, overall, to be a walleye angler in Minnesota. In the northwest part of the state, big waters such as Upper Red, Lake of the Woods and Leech Lake sport strong walleye populations.

"The big news on Red Lake is there's so many fish that we've liberalized our regulation up there," Pereira said.

Anglers on Upper Red will be able to keep four walleyes, with one larger than 17 inches allowed in the bag.

"It should be plenty of good eating-quality fish under 17 inches available on Upper Red," Pereira said. "And again, Leech Lake and Lake of the Woods are doing fantastic right now—a lot of fish. We're expecting really good fishing on those three big waters."

Anglers on Lake of the Woods can keep four walleyes and must release all fish from 19½ to 28 inches with one over 28 inches in the bag. Throw in saugers, a smaller cousin, and there's an aggregate limit of six, of which only four can be walleyes.

On Leech, the walleye limit is four, with a 20- to 26-inch protected slot and one fish over 26 inches allowed.

Minnesota's fishing opener has a reputation for cool, wet and oftentimes windy weather, but this year's forecast actually looks favorable (for a change). According to the National Weather Service, Saturday's forecast for Bemidji, Baudette and most other parts of northwest Minnesota calls for high temperatures in the mid to high 60s and north-northeast winds of 7 to 10 mph.

That will get those walleye senses tingling for sure.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. 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. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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