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Lakes should be all or mostly ice-free by Minnesota Fishing Opener

Set by statute to open on the Saturday two weeks before the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, this year’s Minnesota Fishing Opener is Saturday, May 13.

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A trophy-sized walleye is released in October 2022.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

The big question a few weeks ago, at least among some outdoor scribes, was whether Minnesota’s top walleye lakes would be ice-free for the state’s fishing opener.

Thanks to the onset of warmer weather – finally – and stiff winds in recent days, it now appears most lakes in northwest and north-central Minnesota should be all or mostly ice-free, come opening day.

Set by statute to open on the Saturday two weeks before the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, this year’s Minnesota Fishing Opener is Saturday, May 13.

Durham, 46, of Park Rapids, Minnesota, just wrapped up his 22nd year as a kindergarten teacher in his hometown of Nevis, Minnesota. This is his 32nd year of guiding.

“This wind is going to help us quite a bit to get ice off,” Marc Bacigalupi, Northwest Region fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told the Herald earlier this week. “That wind will open up an area, and then ice can wiggle back and forth and actually get waves started, and that really zaps it.

“So, that’s the silver lining here of this (windy) spring weather.”


Looking at the Northwest Region’s largest walleye lakes – Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Cass and Leech lakes – anglers can expect good numbers of “eater-size” walleyes from strong year-classes in 2018, 2019 or, in some cases, both, Bacigalupi says.

A year-class represents fish recruited to the population from a particular year’s hatch.

Upper Red in particular offers an “exciting opportunity” for eater-size walleyes, he says, driven by a banner hatch in 2019. Beginning May 13, anglers on Upper Red can keep five walleyes, with one over 17 inches allowed.

By comparison, anglers this past winter were allowed three walleyes, with one over 17 inches, on Upper Red.

“There’s just a bunch of them, and we can safely harvest those,” Bacigalupi said of the 2019 year-class. “That’s an exciting opportunity, and there are also some bonus crappies out there – and always the chance of a trophy northern pike.”

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Marc Bacigalupi, Northwest Region fisheries manager, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Contributed/Marc Bacigalupi

Lake of the Woods outlook

On Lake of the Woods, walleyes in the 14- to 19-inch range were below historic averages during last September’s annual fall survey, the DNR said in its Northwest Region fishing outlook report. Still, a strong year-class of walleyes from 2018 will be of keeper size, and anglers can expect an abundance of smaller walleyes in the 8- to 10-inch range.

Walleyes in the 11- to 14-inch range also lag behind historic averages because of below-average year-classes in 2019 and 2020. On the upside, walleyes from the 2021 year-class appear to be average to slightly above average, said Matt Skoog, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minnesota.


“Hopefully, some of those smaller-end fish start showing up in anglers’ bags, and they can start backfilling for some of those weak year-classes,” he said.

There’s always potential for a trophy walleye on Lake of the Woods, of course, and DNR surveys routinely sample fish in excess of 30 inches.

As of midweek, satellite imagery showed a large portion of Lake of the Woods remained ice-covered, but areas of open water were visible, and the color of the ice suggested it was weakening.

Will the ice be gone by opening day?

“Your guess is as good as mine, but it looks like they’re at least able to get out into (Lighthouse) Gap,” just beyond the mouth of the Rainy River, Skoog said. “I would guess there will be some big chunks of ice floating around out there, and there’ll be some areas of open water.

“Where those are at is just dependent on which way the wind is blowing.”

Last year, the DNR declared Lake of the Woods ice-free on Monday, May 16. The median ice-out date – meaning half the time it’s earlier and half the time it’s later – is May 3, and the latest ice-out on record was May 21, 2014.

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Boats fish near a lingering sheet of ice during the opening weekend of Minnesota's 2018 fishing season on Lake of the Woods.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

“It’s a common topic of discussion this time of the year up here – is the ice going to be off by opening day – and generally it will be,” said Curt Quesnell of NCOR Fishing Guide Service on Lake of the Woods north of Williams, Minnesota. “It seems like every year you wonder about what’s going to happen.”


Even if there is lingering ice, areas such as Zippel Bay, Morris Point and Lighthouse Gap are generally open and good bets for opening day anglers, Quesnell says.

“There’ll be places to fish even if the ice isn’t all gone by the opener, which I kind of think it will be,” he said.

Rainy River option

Given the late spring, the Rainy River also could come into play as a good spot for the opener, especially for anglers in pursuit of the trophy-size fish for which Lake of the Woods is known. Walleyes generally spawn when water temperatures hit 42 to 45 degrees, and as of Monday, May 1, the Rainy River at Franz Jevne State Park near Birchdale, Minnesota, was still only 40 degrees, Skoog said.

“It’s hard to say, but there probably will be some walleyes still spawning” on the opener, he said. “I’m guessing the spawn this year is going to be fast and furious because we’re so late.”

Walleye fishing on the Rainy was “pretty good” during the spring season that ended April 14, Skoog said.

“I would expect that to continue, especially with the late spring,” he said. “There will be fish that had run up the river to spawn that will still be in the river on the fishing opener, I would imagine.”

Water clarity – always a factor in walleye fishing success on the Rainy River – was down after recent rains, Skoog said, but river levels are more manageable than last spring, when lakes and rivers along the Minnesota-Ontario border experienced widespread flooding.

“As long as we don’t get a bunch of rain, (the river) will probably start to clear up here shortly as water levels recede,” Skoog said. “It’s not crazy high like it was last year.”


Farther south, walleyes in other parts of the region should be all or mostly done spawning by opening day, said Bacigalupi, the DNR’s Northwest Region fisheries manager. Crews early this past week were still collecting walleye eggs for hatcheries to meet the state’s stocking requirements, he said.

“You could be at the tail end of some spawning activity if you’re fishing in creeks or where rivers come into lakes, (and) you could see some aggregations of fish,” he said.

Other considerations

As always, anglers should brush up on regulations and wear life jackets, Bacigalupi says, a recommendation that might be more important than ever this year, considering the late spring and cold water temperatures.

“That cold water, if you happen to fall in, will make you gasp and gulp for air,” he said. “And if you’re underwater when that happens, that’s a very bad situation.”

Meanwhile, the anticipation for the Minnesota Fishing Opener will only build in the coming days.

“It’s such a great tradition,” Bacigalupi said. “It’s an excuse to get together. Uncle Joe always makes the favorite dish that you always look forward to having. It’s about maybe having a fish fry at night and a cold beverage and recalling those famous stories or the ones that got away.

“I always cherish that tradition.”

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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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