Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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From Red to Pepin, let’s fish walleyes!

Early spring bodes well for May 13 bite

By Glen
Schmitt
Staff Writer

Grand Rapids, Minn. – Optimism always run high in the days
leading up to the Minnesota fishing opener.

But with a warm spring, early ice-out, and spawn that’s been
complete for more than two weeks, Minnesota walleye anglers should
be downright giddy about the potential for catching fish this
weekend.

That is, of course, if the weather holds up – an if that appears
increasingly volatile as the week wears on. Last year’s opening day
remains stuck in most anglers’ minds. Cool temperatures, strong
winds, and rain during the 2005 opener are hard to forget.

But if the weather cooperates, other fishing factors appear to
be falling into place for opening day.

According to Ben Kellin of Ben’s Bait and Tackle in Grand
Rapids, not even a few days of cooler weather leading up to the
opener will affect the bite.

‘The fish are going to bite regardless of the weather,’ Kellin
said. ‘If it’s cold or it rains on opening day, it might keep some
people off the lakes, but the fish are going to go.’

Kellin’s confidence is the result of what took place with the
weather in April. He says the early heat was ideal for spawning
walleyes and quick-rising water temperatures. In fact, he welcomes
a few days of cooler weather leading up to opening day.

Water temperatures, which always seem to be a contributing
factor to early season walleye success, are currently where they
are around Memorial Day in the Grand Rapids area. Kellin says even
the big lakes such as Winnibigoshish should provide anglers with
ideal conditions.

‘I’ve talked with a lot of guys fishing panfish this week who
have been accidentally catching walleyes,’ Kellin said. ‘Honestly,
I don’t think any type of weather change will screw up the
bite.’

Despite the warm spring, Kellin says to stick with the
traditional jig-and-minnow combination on opening day throughout
the Grand Rapids area. He also expects better numbers of big
walleyes to be caught due to the early spawn and the presence of a
full moon on the opener.

Along the Minnesota/Canada border, resorts and bait shops are
gearing up to host this year’s Governor’s Fishing Opener at Rainy
Lake. There have been years when the last of the ice is going out
on Rainy Lake about this time.

That’s not the case this year and according to Bruce Sandbeck of
the Loon’s Nest Bait Shop, Rainy Lake is primed for a strong start
to the walleye season.

‘We’re set up for the best opener in years,’ Sandbeck said. ‘The
ice went out extremely early and water temperatures have steadily
been climbing – this could be the best opener we’ve ever had.’

While anticipation for opening day is peaking statewide, nowhere
is there more excitement than along the shores of Upper Red Lake.
For the first time in nine years, Upper Red will be participating
in the walleye opener.

Intense stocking efforts and management of the lake’s walleye
population has rejuvenated a once depleted walleye resource.
Walleye numbers rebounded at such an amazing rate in Upper Red that
it may very well produce more fish on opening day than any other
lake in the state.

Mike Washenberger of Dr. Tackle Sports in Kelliher says you can
sense the buzz on the streets. You’ll be hard pressed to find a
place to stay anywhere close to the lake, and there’s a good chance
opening day on Upper Red will receive more press than the annual
Governor’s Fishing Opener.

‘It’s going to be phenomenal, that’s really the best way to
describe it,’ Washenberger said. ‘There shouldn’t be any problem
putting fish in the boat.’

Walleye anglers on Upper Red will be allowed to keep two
walleyes under 17 inches. All walleyes between 17 and 26 inches
must be released, and one trophy fish over 26 inches may be kept as
part of the two-fish limit.

Washenberger doesn’t expect the two-fish limit to keep people
from fishing. He says there’s plenty of fish less than 17 inches to
be had, and the potential to catch ‘hundreds of walleyes’
exists.

In addition, anglers may keep 10 crappies (Upper Red has been
noted as the state’s premier crappie lake over the past decade) and
three northern pike. Washenberger says opening day anglers can put
together a nice bag of fish.

‘The crappie bite has been pretty good and the guys fishing them
are catching about 10 walleyes for every crappie,’ he added. ‘We’re
excited to have an opening day to think about again.’

At Lake Mille Lacs, one of the state’s most coveted walleye
lakes, opening day looks just as promising. Water temperatures
currently are in the low 50-degree range, which typically isn’t the
case until the end of May.

Mille Lacs is set up about two weeks ahead of schedule and
walleye numbers from the 2002 and 2003 year-classes remain
extremely strong. Anglers will be allowed to keep four walleyes
under 20 inches, and one trophy walleye over 28 inches may be
included in that limit.

Steve Johnson of Portside Bait and Liquor in Isle says there’s
plenty of fish between 13 and 17 inches to be caught. Fish longer
than 20 inches also are quite strong, and given the warm spring,
trophy-caliber fish should be more apt to bite than normal this
time of year.

The only factor Johnson is concerned about is the weather on
opening day. Not because the fish aren’t going to bite, but because
it limits angler participation.

‘At this point, I don’t think a cold front is going to make a
difference,’ Johnson said. ‘With all the warm weather we’ve had,
the lake is set up as good as it possibly can be for opening
day.’

Johnson believes the shallow rock bite during lowlight periods
of the day will produce the most fish. But given the warm spring,
he points to the north end sand and mid-lake structure to produce
more fish than usual on opener.

‘Slip bobbers and leeches or live bait rigs and leeches will
produce the majority of fish,’ he said. ‘Minnows are the best
secondary option on Mille Lacs.’

Throughout central Minnesota, walleye fishing usually gets real
good once water temperatures reach 52 to 57 degrees. That typically
occurs a week or two after opening day.

Jim Segner of Little Jim’s Sport Shop in Annandale says most
lakes already are in that window. As a result, walleye action
should be good on the opener – potentially the best it has been in
years.

‘The warm spring has us right where we need to be to catch
walleyes,’ Segner said. ‘We couldn’t be in any better shape leading
up to the opener.’

Although Segner expects quite a few lakes to be productive, he
feels Clearwater Lake is always a good opening day selection. In
his estimation, Clearwater simply has the best walleye population
in the area and the most structure.

‘There’s more walleyes in Clearwater and more places to fish
them,’ he said. ‘You’re just not limited to a spot or two
there.’

As for bait selection, it’s really up to the individual. Segner
says every year seems to be different, but he recommends anglers
fish with what they’re most confident using.

Denny Fletcher of Fletcher’s Bait in Sauk Centre anticipates a
good opening weekend. Fletcher says the past two or three openers
have been somewhat poor in west-central Minnesota and he expects a
much better start to the walleye season this year.

Lakes such as Osakis, Minnewaska, and Sauk always are worth
considering for opening day walleyes. Given the mild spring and
rapid water warm up, they could be exceptional this opener,
Fletcher said.

‘The water cooled down a bit this week, which I believe is
actually good,’ he said. ‘It was almost warming up too fast, so I
think we could have the best opening day in several years.’

Fletcher, who also is a wholesale bait dealer, says minnows and
other live bait options are in good shape for the opener. Large and
jumbo leeches will be available, as will most minnow
selections.

The exception might be spot-tailed shiners. A favorite for many
opening day anglers, especially in northern Minnesota, spot-tails
have been difficult to find. They have yet to run in most creeks
and Fletcher anticipates them to be in short supply.

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