As in previous years, the four largest lakes in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Northwest Region – Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Cass and Leech – will figure prominently into anglers’ plans for the state’s fishing opener, which gets underway Saturday, May 9.

“Other than Lake of the Woods, I think we had a lot lower than normal harvest, on average, across the board for our big lakes and our small lakes,” this past winter, said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji. “That means we’ll be going into the spring with a few more fish than normal.”

Here’s a look at walleye fishing prospects for the Northwest Region’s four largest lakes:

Lake of the Woods

Anglers logged a record 2.1 million hours of fishing pressure on the big lake during the winter of 2019 and another 760,000 hours from last year’s mid-May walleye opener through September, an increase of about 25% from previous highs, Drewes said.

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That resulted in the third-highest sauger harvest on record, Drewes said, at 574,000 pounds for the year – more than twice the target of 250,000 pounds. By comparison, walleye harvest between summer and winter was about average in 2019, Drewes said, at 640,000 pounds, which is closer to the six-year target of 540,000 pounds.

Harvest numbers for this past winter aren’t yet available, but fall netting surveys showed “above average” abundance for both saugers and walleyes, Drewes said.

Areas near the mouth of the Rainy River, including Four-Mile Bay and Pine Island, should be good bets for opening day anglers, Drewes said.

“There’s a lot of 14- to 18-inch walleyes in Lake of the Woods,” Drewes said. “That’s your primetime fish there.”

  • Limit: Aggregate limit of six walleyes and saugers, with no more than four walleyes allowed; anglers must release all walleyes from 19½ to 28 inches.

Upper Red Lake

The DNR in 2019 liberalized summer walleye regulations in response to a surplus of spawning-size fish, allowing one walleye over 20 inches in the four-fish bag. Spawning stocks now are back in what Drewes calls the “optimal zone.”

That means the DNR is going to “dial back the regulation a little bit” for this year, Drewes said, with a four-walleye bag and one fish over 17 inches allowed – same as this past winter.

“Walleye abundance is about average for what we've seen the last 10-12 years, and there’s lots of fish from 13 to 19 inches,” Drewes said. “Water levels are normal to above normal, which is good, and ice should be out the week before the opener. That translates into a lot of fish in the (Tamarack) river and up along the east shore.”

Fishing should be good if the weather cooperates, Drewes predicts.

“That's a wind-driven thing there, but we're in good shape,” he said.

  • Limit: Four walleyes, with one over 17 inches allowed.

Cass Lake

Walleyes in Cass Lake are “well above average” for both size and abundance, Drewes said. There’s a strong year-class of fish from the 2013 hatch that now measure 18 to 20 inches, he said, along with a “fair number” of 13- to 17-inch walleyes.

“So, it’s just a beautiful size distribution, and there’s a really strong yellow perch population in there now – perch that are 10 to 12 inches,” Drewes said. “They’re going to help round out some bags.

“So, Cass is poised – especially with the fish up in those connected waters – to be pretty good for the opener.”

  • Limit: Same as the statewide limit of six, with no more than one walleye over 20 inches.

Leech Lake

The DNR in 2019 relaxed walleye regulations on Leech, removing the 20- to 26-inch protected slot to allow one walleye over 20 inches in the four-fish bag.

“Anglers really responded to that and had a great summer up there,” Drewes said. “We had good pressure and a really good harvest. About 20% of the harvest was fish over 20 inches.”

Then came the winter of 2019-20 and a barrage of heavy snow and slush that resulted in little to no fishing pressure.

Walleyes from 12 to 24 inches are abundant, based on DNR test netting surveys, and walleye numbers, overall, are above average, Drewes said.

“We’re also seeing lots of really young fish that are 8 to 11 inches,” he said. “So there’s a lot of fish from the last two years that are going to be just kind of pestering people, so to speak.”

  • Limit: Four, with one walleye over 20 inches allowed.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.