First bite for Minnesota's walleye season

By all indications, anglers should be in for a fairly normal--if there is such a thing--opener when Minnesota's walleye season gets underway Saturday.

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Boats anchor up along the edge of the channel in Four-Mile Bay of Lake of the Woods in 2013 during the opening weekend of Minnesota's fishing season. Lake of the Woods will be ice-free again for Saturday's Minnesota walleye opener, and anglers should encounter plenty of walleyes as long as the wind and weather cooperate. (Brad Dokken photo)

By all indications, anglers should be in for a fairly normal-if there is such a thing-opener when Minnesota's walleye season gets underway Saturday.

Ice is all but gone from Lake of the Woods, and the big lake will be ice-free by opening day. Other walleye factories such as Red, Winnie and Leech have been ice-free a couple of weeks.

Coupled with increasing air and water temperatures, that means walleyes on most bodies of water should be done spawning and ready to feed.

As always, wind and weather will be the wild cards.

Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., said water temperatures on Lake of the Woods are on the rise, and with forecast highs pushing 80 degrees in recent days, the trend should continue.


"That will warm up the water, and that's what people are going to need if they want a good walleye bite," Talmage said.

Opening weekend has been an event of extremes on Lake of the Woods. In 2012, the big lake was ice-free by mid-April, only to still be locked in ice for the 2013 and 2014 openers. Anglers last year were greeted by open water, but stiff winds made for rough waves and uncomfortable fishing conditions.

Talmage said this year looked like an early spring after balmy March temperatures resulted in a premature end to the ice fishing season and gave anglers a jumpstart boat fishing on the Rainy River.

But then came April and an extended period of cool, unsettled weather.

"I think when it was all said and done, it looked like an early spawn, but I think we ended up about normal" in terms of spawning, Talmage said. "I think anglers can look for fish in the normal locations. It seems like we've had some extremes, but this might actually be more normal compared to some of those years."

Historically, that means anglers should expect to find walleyes in shallow, sand bottom areas in places such as Pine Island and Zippel Bay, along with more current-driven locations such as Four-Mile Bay and Lighthouse Gap.

Anglers during the open water season can keep an aggregate limit of six walleyes and saugers on Lake of the Woods, and no more than four of those fish can be walleyes. All walleyes from 19½ to 28 inches must be released.

"If the wind lets you out there, you shouldn't have to go out too far," Talmage said. "Those fish aren't going to be sitting out in 35 feet of water yet. I think just off the north side of Pine on those sand flats should be good."


Bemidji outlook

The timing of this year's walleye spawn also appears to be about normal in the Bemidji area, managers say.

Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said crews were pretty much on schedule with historical averages for collecting walleye eggs for state stocking programs.

"April 20 is about usually our peak, and that's when we got our (walleye) eggs this year," Barnard said.

Minnesota's walleye season by statute opens two Saturdays before the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. That often coincides with Mother's Day weekend, but a twist of the calendar this year puts the opener a week later.

Besides reducing the potential for domestic stress-which has been known to happen when Mother's Day and walleye opener coincide-this year's later opening day also could steer walleyes farther away from the shallow, gravel-bottom current areas where the fish spawn.

"They should be back out of the streams pretty much," Barnard said. "They do still hang near the mouths of those streams to some extent, but they'll be getting back into regular patterns."

If recent warm temperatures hold through opening day, Barnard says he expects even larger lakes in the Bemidji area to push the 60-degree mark come Saturday.


Barnard says he expects traditional Bemidji-area favorites to be good bets again this year for opening day. That means Lake Bemidji, Lake Plantagenet and lakes that are part of the Cass Lake chain, including Andrusia, Big Wolf and Kitchi, Barnard said.

"There's a lot of movement out of that Cass Lake system from both the Mississippi and Turtle River, and as those fish filter back down, they spend a little time in those connected lakes," he said. "Those are usually good opener spots."

High flows up north

Water levels in the Bemidji area are "down just a little bit" from average, Barnard said, but farther north, the Tamarack River, which flows into Upper Red Lake, is high and fast from recent rains. As usual, the mouth of the Tamarack River likely will draw anglers by the hundreds.

"I think there will be walleyes in the river to some extent because of those flows," Barnard said. "That tends to keep them in there longer, so there could be some good fishing in the river."

Like the Tamarack, the Rainy River also was high and fast early last week because of recent heavy rains upstream in the basin.

"That's going to affect fish movement in the river and where they're staging," Talmage, the Baudette area fisheries manager, said. "We could use for the flows to start tapering off. I think people are running into some issues with debris. The tributaries are still full from those rains.

"The Big Fork (river) is higher now than it was when the snowmelt was happening."


Big producers

As two of the region's premier walleye destinations, Lake of the Woods and Upper Red both sport strong populations of Minnesota's state fish. Talmage says Lake of the Woods walleye numbers are on par with historical means, with fish ranging from trophy size to minnow stealers.

Walleyes from a strong hatch in 2011 are especially abundant, and those fish now are 14 to 16 inches, Talmage says-"right there in that perfect eating range."

On Red, Barnard says walleyes from the 2011 and 2013 hatches also are dominant. The older fish are 15 to 18 inches, he said, while the 2013 walleyes are 13 to 15 inches. Anglers on Red can keep three walleyes, Barnard said, with one longer than 17 inches in the bag.

Early in the year, Barnard says he expects the walleyes on Upper Red to be hanging out near the first break line, where the water drops from 3 feet to about 6 feet. At that point, it's as simple as tossing out a jig and minnow or dunking a minnow below a bobber.

No need to get too fancy on Upper Red, Barnard says.

"People are going to have the opportunity to harvest some fish this year for sure," he said. "You can't go wrong up there unless the wind is blowing.

"That's the big draw for Red Lake-even for some pretty restrictive regulations, it attracts a lot of people just for those catch rates. It's unique to be able to catch fish like that, and that's why people travel such long distances to fish there."


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Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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