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Lingering ice, cold water could play into Minnesota fishing opener strategies – at least 'up north'

Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Cass, Leech and Winnie all had ice early this week.

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Late springs with lingering ice on northern Minnesota lakes typically up the odds on opening weekend for catching larger walleyes, such as this 26½-inch walleye from the Rainy River. Minnesota's fishing season for walleyes, northern pike and bass opens Saturday, May 14.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – A lot can change in the next week, but barring a drastic warmup, there likely will be at least some ice floating around on far northern Minnesota lakes for this year’s fishing opener.

The big event gets underway Saturday, May 14.

That’s especially true on Lake of the Woods, where it definitely is looking like another one of those openers with ice on the big pond, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minnesota. Satellite imagery as of midweek showed Big Traverse Bay mostly ice-covered, although open water was visible in the Lighthouse Gap and Morris Point areas on the south shore, along with several areas up at the Northwest Angle.

In between those two areas, though, there was about 40 miles of ice.

READ MORE FISHING COVERAGE:
My first walleye took the bait within a handful of minutes of dropping a line into Lake Winnibigoshish's 48-degree water.

“The end of this weekend will be a pretty good (indicator), but right now, I’d say it’s going to be a little iffy on whether it’s iced-up or open,” Talmage said Tuesday, May 3.

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According to DNR records, the latest ice-out on Lake of the Woods was May 21, 2014, and the earliest ice-out was two years earlier, on April 8, 2012.

Other popular walleye lakes, including Upper Red, Cass, Leech and Winnibigoshish, also still had ice on them as of midweek, but the odds of that changing by opening day are perhaps a bit more optimistic.

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The weather was beautiful, but chunks of ice lingered May 13, 2018, on Lake of the Woods during that year's Minnesota fishing opener. Chances are good that anglers will encounter even more ice on the big lake this year, when fishing season gets underway Saturday, May 14.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Looking good on Upper Red

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Tyler Brasel, Bear Paw Guides on Upper Red Lake.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

On Upper Red, a massive sheet of ice was moving around with the wind early this week, said fishing guide Tyler Brasel of Bear Paw Guides in Waskish, Minnesota. There was about a half-mile of open water in front of the Tamarac River mouth, Brasel said, but there was miles of ice beyond that.

The mouth of the Tamarac River is a traditional early season hotspot on Upper Red, typically attracting boats by the hundreds. From an angler’s perspective, the late ice-out isn’t a bad thing, Brasel says. The Tamarac is flowing high and fast this spring and is loaded with spawning walleyes, he says, and fish in the lake will be at different stages of spawning.

In other words, anglers should be able to find active walleyes.

“Every opener is good, don’t get me wrong, but this opener in my opinion will be nothing short of phenomenal, just because of the late ice-out,” Brasel said. “There’s got to be a ton of walleyes just staged at that mouth.”

If he had to predict, Brasel says he’d expect a sheet of ice will linger somewhere on the lake come opening day, depending on the wind direction. The north shore of Upper Red typically is the first to open up, Brasel says, but any shallow shoreline spots with open water, along with the mouth of the Tamarac, should hold walleyes.

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According to DNR surveys, Upper Red holds “good numbers” of walleyes from 14 to 18 inches long, along with an abundance of smaller fish in the 12-inch range. Anglers this year can keep four walleyes, with one fish longer than 20 inches allowed, on Upper Red.

“It should be a good year,” Brasel said. “It’s one of those recipes for just a dynamite spring.”

Lake of the Woods outlook

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Phil Talmage is the DNR's Baudette-based area fisheries manager.
Contributed / Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

On Lake of the Woods, 14- to 16-inch walleyes were at or below historic averages during the annual large lake survey last September, the DNR’s Talmage said, although “we’re OK” in terms of 17- to 19-inch fish. In addition, walleyes from a strong hatch in 2018 should be of keeper size this summer, he says. Anglers also should encounter “good numbers” of smaller walleyes in the 10- to 14-inch range, based on catches during the fall survey.

Anglers can keep six walleyes and saugers on Lake of the Woods, of which no more than four can be walleyes. Fish in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot must be released on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River, but anglers are allowed to keep one trophy fish longer than 28 inches in their limit.

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"Slot fish" in the 19.5- to 28-inch protected size range on Lake of the Woods were abundant during the fishing opener in May 2014, a spring when the ice didn't go out until May 14, the latest ice-out ever recorded on the big lake, DNR records show.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

As always, anglers on Lake of the Woods will have a good shot at hooking into some of those larger “slot fish” on the opener, if previous years with late ice-outs are any indication. The Rainy will still hold numbers of larger walleyes that haven’t returned to the lake from their spring spawning runs.

“I would anticipate that opening weekend, people will be catching a lot of really nice-sized fish,” Talmage said.

Even if the lake isn’t ice-free – which it almost certainly won’t be – traditional opening weekend hotspots such as Four-Mile Bay, Lighthouse Gap and Morris Point have open water, thanks to continued high flows from the Rainy River.

In most cases, fishing is as simple as dropping an anchor and jigging with a fathead minnow or frozen shiner, said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.

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“When we have late springs like this, there’s always talk about, ‘Hey, is there going to be ice for opener on the lake?’ ” Henry said. “That sets up for a really good jig bite, both in the river, in the bays and also adjacent to the ice pack.

“You get flowing water, those fish are going to be adjacent to shore. You get a lot of walleyes just being close to shore along that entire south shore.”

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Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.
Contributed / Joe Henry

Anglers who typically fish the Rainy River on the opener might have to set up closer to shore and shallower, as well, because of the high flows. Sturgeon anglers, who recently have used up to 11 ounces of weight to keep their bait on the bottom while fishing deeper holes, have had success moving shallower into areas with less current, Henry says.

That’s something walleye anglers fishing the Rainy should consider, as well, Henry says. Walleyes traditionally are a low-light fish, but shallow water still could be a good bet in the stained waters of Rainy River and Lake of the Woods, he says.

“If that water is just ripping, now all of a sudden, you’ve got to figure out, ‘Hey, I'm going to have to fish closer to shore. I might fish spots I normally wouldn't fish,’ ” Henry said. “With stained water, your walleyes can be relatively shallow so it will not surprise me one bit to hear about people catching good walleyes in 5 to 10 feet of water on the river, come opener.”

Think light, think shallow

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Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame angler and fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, will guide Gov. Tim Walz for this year's Governor's Fishing Opener.
Forum News Service

Anglers on other traditional northern walleye lakes should be looking shallow, as well, said Tom Neustrom, a 40-year fishing guide and Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame angler from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Neustrom will be guiding Gov. Tim Walz as part of this year’s Governor’s Fishing Opener festivities.

Walleyes on many northern lakes likely will be recovering from the spawn, and water temperatures will still be cold, Neustrom says. Anglers should downsize – as in 1/16-ounce jigs and small minnows – to up their odds for catching finicky opening-day walleyes.

“I think you’re going to be targeting males mostly because you get into that pre-spawn/spawn period when the water is so cold, and a lot of times, some of the lakes you fish, the walleyes are still spawning or haven’t even spawned yet,” Neustrom said. “So, I think you’ve got to think light, and you’ve got to think shallow.”

Cold-front conditions could change that plan, he says.

“You might have to go down to that second break as deep as 20-22 feet in some of the lakes, and that’s where the fish are going to be,” Neustrom said. “But most often, they’re going to be shallow.”

Where’s the bait?

The question of bait availability seems to come up every year as opener approaches. And while bait shops always seem to have minnows of some variety come opening day, Leech Lake-area fishing guide Toby Kvalevog of Leisure Outdoor Adventures says he expects spottail shiners will be in short supply because many of the large lakes where they’re trapped remain covered with ice.

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Toby Kvalevog of Brainerd, Minnesota, plays a walleye that hit a jig and shiner minnow June 22, 2014, on Leech Lake. A UND goalie from 1993 to 1997, Kvalevog teaches physical education in Brainerd and also works as a fishing guide.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Spottails are THE bait of choice for many walleye anglers early in the season.

“Shiners will be very hard to trap until later in May,” Kvalevog said “If you happen to find some shiners, buy ‘em!”

As with Neustrom, Kvalevog says downsizing both jigs and bait will be a good approach for opener – especially on lakes such as Leech, Cass and Winnie – where he expects walleyes will be in a post-spawn funk and “feeling the blues.”

Small jigs tipped with minnows, leeches and perhaps even nightcrawlers, fished slowly in the warmest water available, will be most productive, he predicts.

Traditional spawning sites near windblown points and current areas will hold a lot of walleyes, he says, and reed beds will have the warmest water.

“It’s in these types of areas that you may find a walleye-crappie buffet,” Kvalevog said. “I will be looking here for sure if there is any wind to be had on our walleye opener holiday.”

  • On the web:

For more information on Minnesota fishing, check out the DNR's Minnesota Fishing Regulations booklet at mndnr.gov.

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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