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Cold, high water could play into walleye success at Minnesota Fishing Opener

Cold water could make walleye fishing a challenge for Saturday's Minnesota Fishing Opener. Forum News Service file photo1 / 2
Anglers test the waters of Lake of the Woods for walleyes during the opening weekend of Minnesota's 2018 fishing season. Minnesota's 2019 Fishing Opener is set for Saturday, May 11. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service2 / 2

A later-than-normal ice-out, coupled with high water levels and cold water temperatures, could put a chill on angling prospects for the Minnesota Fishing Opener.

The grand springtime tradition gets underway at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 11.

“So far, we’ve got a little more water this spring than normal, the rivers are running a little higher than normal and the lakes bounced up some,” said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.

Across northwest Minnesota, ice-out is running three to seven days behind normal, Drewes said. Ice on Lake Bemidji went out Saturday, April 27 — four days later than normal — he said, and border waters such as Lake of the Woods potentially could have some lingering ice for Saturday’s opener.

“There’ll probably still be some spawning going on in the northern lakes,” he said. “WIth this (past) week’s weather on top of a late ice-out, I would expect colder-than-normal water temperatures. I think there’s going to be a lot of waters that are still in the 40s, and that could make for tough fishing.”

Last year, ice covered much of Big Traverse Bay of Lake of the Woods a week before the fishing opener, but the onset of temperatures in the 60s and 70s left only a few icebergs by the time opening day arrived.

This year, no drastic warm-up is in the forecast from the un-springlike setback Mother Nature dealt this past week. In Baudette, for example, high temperatures this coming week aren’t expected to exceed the mid 50s, with nighttime lows barely above freezing.

Still, hope springs eternal, as the old saying goes. Open water on Lake of the Woods as of midweek extended well past Lighthouse Gap near the mouth of the Rainy River, according to Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.

“Reports are the ice is moving a lot right now, which leads us to believe it will go pretty quick,” Henry said. “Only Mother Nature knows for sure, but we believe it will be ice-free by the opener.”

The fish are there, but ...

Walleyes should be done spawning in Rainy River, a Lake of the Woods tributary, and the Tamarac River, which flows into Upper Red Lake, Drewes said.

As with most openers, male walleyes will dominate the catch as larger females recover from spawning, he said.

“Whether or not they’re turned on will really depend on that three to five days of weather before the opener,” Drewes said. “Get on a nice warming trend with above-freezing nights — that’s really the trigger. Warm those shallows up and get those fish going.”

Given the conditions, slow presentations will be crucial, especially on rivers such as the Rainy, which is flowing nearly three times faster than it was at this time last year, based on streamflow readings from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I would think with high flows and slightly later-than-normal spawn, there’ll be fish in those rivers,” Drewes said. “Even if they’re done spawning, there’s probably more forage available in those rivers if the lakes downstream still have ice or just recently lost ice. Those flowages are always good in the spring, but they’re even better on late springs.”

Gradual improvement

By all accounts, water clarity is improving in the Rainy River, and the amount of logs and debris floating downriver from spring runoff is subsiding. Water clarity in the Rainy River was about a foot “with a bit of debris” as of midweek, and the clarity in Lake of the Woods was good, Henry of Lake of the Woods Tourism said Wednesday.

“With another week and a half, we are thinking it will slow and clear up some — at least that is the thought,” Henry said. “We believe there are still walleyes in the river and (Four-Mile) Bay.”

No doubt there’s plenty of walleyes and saugers to be had on Lake of the Woods, managers say. The big lake holds strong numbers of walleyes from 14 inches all the way into the protected slot, which requires anglers to release all walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette.

“There are some really good, nice-size eaters, and we have that year-class from last year that was busy stealing everybody’s bait all winter,” Talmage said. “They’ll probably continue doing that, but they won’t be big enough to keep yet, obviously.”

Sauger numbers from strong hatches in 2014, 2015 and 2016 also are growing into keeper size, Talmage said.

“There’s a lot of sauger out there for folks to enjoy, he said. “With the walleyes, walleye production and recruitment has been really consistent recently.”

Flows and fish

The increase in water levels on lakes and rivers is especially welcome on Upper Red Lake, where low water in recent years has required boaters to use caution getting onto the lake from the mouth of the Tamarac River and other access points.

Upper Red is up about a foot and a half from last year, and the lake is open as far as the eye can see from the east shore in Waskish, said Tyler Brasel of Bear Paw Guides in Waskish.

“We haven’t been able to see ice here on the east shore for a few days now, except for a few large piles of ice caused by the wind,” Brasel said. “I haven’t been able to look at the satellite imagery lately due to clouds, but I’d assume (ice-out) is close.”

The walleyes definitely have found the abundance of flowing water to their liking, Brasel said.

“The Tamarac River is really flowing good this year, and by the looks of the amount of walleye in the ditches and streams, we have had a strong run of (walleyes) using them,” he said. “Shouldn’t change much on the lake, except this year the lake will be a tad deeper. Pitching jigs or a slip bobber setup along the break will get the job done.”

Come opening day, anglers will have more harvest opportunity on Upper Red, with a bag limit of four walleyes and one fish longer than 20 inches allowed, Drewes said. Previously, anglers could keep one walleye over 17 inches in their four-fish limit. The change means anglers now can harvest walleyes from 17 inches to 20 inches.

The DNR has implemented a similar regulation on Leech Lake.

“We have surplus spawner stock in both those situations so we relaxed the regulations to allow anglers to take advantage of that situation and bring those spawner stock abundances back down into the desirable or optimal range,” Drewes said.

“All of our large lakes are in really good shape right now.”

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