MINNESOTA FISHING OPENER: Late spring could play into opening-day walleye plans

Late spring. Early opener. That's the scenario facing Minnesota anglers, especially in the north, when the grand quest for the state's most sought-after fish resumes Saturday. Minnesota's walleye season -- without a doubt the state's largest outd...

Minnesota walleye stamp
Nick Reitzel of Karlstad, Minn., won Minnesota's first-ever walleye stamp competition with this painting of two walleyes, one chasing minnows and the other hitting a jig.

Late spring. Early opener.

That's the scenario facing Minnesota anglers, especially in the north, when the grand quest for the state's most sought-after fish resumes Saturday.

Minnesota's walleye season -- without a doubt the state's largest outdoors get-together -- opens two Saturdays before Memorial Day weekend. And this year, thanks to the way the calendar turns, the opener is about as early as it can be.

At the same time, larger bodies of water such as Lake of the Woods still have ice, and several other big lakes -- Red and Winnie, among them -- are just losing their winter layers.

Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said the combination could pose some angling challenges.


"Anglers will be dealing with cold water and still some late spawning going on in some of the bigger lakes," Drewes said. "Across the region, we're probably running three to five days behind normal on ice-out and walleye spawning.

"I think an angler is going to be very hard-pressed finding 50-degree water."

Where to look

Given that scenario, Drewes said anglers should concentrate their efforts near traditional spawning areas such as river inlets or shoals.

"Those fish are going to be packed up in some areas in shallow water, and people could do pretty well," Drewes said. "Rivers and the connections between lakes are going to hold a lot of fish."

Anglers who target spots such as break lines in 10 to 14 feet of water, which might produce on a normal spring, could have trouble, though, Drewes said: the walleyes probably won't be there yet.

"I think you're going to have to be real flexible," he said.

The pattern greeting this year's walleye opener -- a late spring and early opening day -- isn't much different than last year, when season opened May 10. Lake of the Woods beyond Lighthouse Gap still had ice, and the DNR temporarily closed the Tamarack River and other Upper Red Lake tributaries to protect concentrations of spawning fish.


As of midweek, at least, Drewes said the DNR hadn't decided whether to temporarily close the Red Lake tributaries this year.

Last year, Four-Mile Bay and Upper Red near the mouth of the Tamarack River both served up opening-day walleye fishing that was nothing short of phenomenal.

Not even snow squalls or winter-like cold could put a damper on the action.

This year could be a repeat in both places. Especially if the runoff that fills the Rainy River with debris and turbid water each spring has cleared.

"There's still going to be ripe fish on Lake of the Woods for sure" that haven't spawned, Drewes said. "People are going to be catching fish that are looking for places to spawn."

Second that motion

Walleye pro Bruce "Doc" Samson of Minnetrista, Minn., said he'd put his money on Lake of the Woods opening day this year, too. Even if the big lake is covered with ice, Samson said, the walleyes will be stacked up in the usual spots.

"Right where the Rainy dumps into Lake of the Woods is loaded with fish," Samson said.


A Cavalier, N.D., native, Samson has made his mark in professional walleye fishing with his high-tech approach, which includes a laptop computer on the boat to help him analyze fish-holding spots.

No need to get that fancy opening weekend, though, Samson says; just bait up a jig with a fathead minnow and look for the spawning grounds.

That holds true on just about any Minnesota water.

"People go, 'where is that?' " Samson said. "It's where everybody fishes every year. It's where the traditional community hole that people catch fish on all the time is just very predictable. Guys on opener go to their same spot every year, and the fish are there. The reason they're there is it's a spawning area."

Bonus panfish

Smaller, shallower lakes that warm up faster also are a good opening-day option. And they just might provide a bonus during a late spring such as this one.

According to the DNR's Drewes, panfish such as crappies and sunfish still should be stacked up in shallow water. That could make area lakes such as Maple Lake near Mentor, Minn. -- or any number of smaller lakes in the Bemidji area -- even more attractive.

Maple routinely produces nice walleyes and good action opening day and throughout the early part of the season.


"Typically, people are hitting those smaller lakes for panfish a couple of weeks before the opener," Drewes said. "And this year, those early panfish opportunities are probably going to present themselves around the walleye opener."

More than anything, though, whether rain or shine or snow or sleet, Minnesota's fishing opener is about tradition.

"It's really a social thing," Samson said. "People get out and they see their friends they may not have connected with for awhile, and there's a little bit of betting and seeing who catches the most fish or the biggest fish. It's just a nice social event."

And not to be overlooked, Samson says, is the "mystique" of the walleye.

"Walleyes are really interesting," Samson said. "When they're on the bite, it's easy; and when they don't want to bite, they're just terribly tough to catch.

"I try to understand them based on weather, based on time of year, based on forage in the system. And I still can't figure them out."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .


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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