Fishing opener 2016: a big chill
Starbuck, Minn. — Last Saturday arrived with cold and wind across the state, and in some parts of northern Minnesota, docks were covered with a thin layer of snow on opening morning of the 2016 game-fishing season.
Stating that weather conditions were less than ideal on the walleye-fishing opener would be an understatement. Statewide, by most angler accounts, it was downright brutal, and the freezing temperatures coupled with 30-mile-per-hour wind gusts certainly had an impact on the number of anglers on opening day.
“It was probably the worst (opener) in the 31 years I’ve been here, from a people (numbers) and weather standpoint,” said Larry Jensen, of Minnewaska Bait and Tackle in Starbuck, as he summed up opening day. “I drove around the accesses on (Lake) Minnewaska Saturday and they were nearly empty.”
With such a significant cold front, Jensen added that most people knew walleye fishing was going to be slow, and with a drop in water temperatures and those strong north winds, the panfish didn’t cooperate either.
“We started seeing fishermen on Sunday, but Saturday was a bust,” he added. “Fortunately, it’s a long season, so better days are ahead.”
While the weather dominated opening-day stories in most areas and certainly kept many anglers indoors, those who took on the conditions found some walleyes, albeit with varying levels of success.
Ryan White, of White’s Corner Bait in Madison Lake, said angler participation was down on opening day compared with most years. Ironically, the walleye bite was better on Saturday than Sunday in this area of southern Minnesota.
White had a steady stream of customers coming through his bait shop until the season opened at midnight Saturday. Those late-night anglers seemed to encounter the most success and best fishing conditions.
“Those guys that went Friday night, before the wind really kicked in, did well,” he said. “Fishing activity and success got noticeably worse throughout the weekend.”
The wind and cold were major factors regarding angler numbers on the state’s large, more popular walleye lakes, too. It didn’t seem to matter the lake, fishermen noticed fewer boats than usual on this opening day.
Upper Red Lake, for example, is notorious for being a difficult lake to fish with even a moderate wind. So Saturday’s 30-mph gusts left few fishing options for anglers. Many decided not to battle the big waves and stayed on shore.
“We didn’t have as many people around as past years, and while some of them trailered their boats to spots that were a bit calmer, it was too rough on the south end,” said Todd Mortenson, of Mort’s Dock in Kelliher. “Fishing was so-so at best, and with the conditions, we just had a lot of people on shore looking at whitecaps.”
Here’s a look at how anglers fared on some of the state’s other prominent walleye fisheries.
Lake of the Woods: Joe Henry, executive director for Lake of the Woods Tourism, said the cold weather and wind made fishing a challenge at times, but it didn’t keep most anglers from heading out. Walleyes were caught in good numbers in various depths on the main basin and on the Rainy River from Four Mile Bay all the way to Birchdale.
Lake Mille Lacs: Angler participation was way down across the lake, according to Steve Johnson, of Johnson’s Portside on the east side. But fishing was very good, – “abnormally good,” given the conditions, with most groups catching a wide range of walleye sizes.
Lake Winnibigoshish: Roger Croaker, of Nodak’s Lodge on the lake’s south end, said it was 29 degrees and the wind was pounding his shoreline on opening morning. The fish were spread out, with some success reported on the north- and west-side points.
Cass Lake: At Sunset Cove Resort, owner Al Ruzek said it was windy and cold, but the guys battling the conditions caught walleyes and a lot of northern pike. Fish were deeper than usual during the day, and slid shallower in the evening.
From Leech Lake, fishing reports were really mixed. Some walleyes were found in their traditional shallow locations, but others were caught in water deeper than usual for opening day. There were limits caught, and other anglers struggled to catch fish, according to Jack Shriver, of Shriver’s Bait Company in Walker.
“It was tough for some, especially given the weather, and we also had fewer boats on the lake than normal,” Shriver said. “Were they here and didn’t go because of the weather? I don’t know for sure, but I do know the walleye fishing is going to get better very soon.”
The governor’s opener
Freeze warnings and frost advisories were out for a large part of Minnesota when Gov. Mark Dayton headed out onto on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor in northeastern Minnesota for the 69th annual Governor’s Fishing Opener, a tradition since 1948.
Dayton and his party had to bundle up against the cold and wind, but they managed to catch some decent fish. The temperature was 32 degrees for the send-off ceremony at Big Sandy Resort.
Dayton and legislative leaders who fished with him claimed success. The Democratic governor landed one walleye, one crappie, and two perch, while Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt caught two walleyes, and Democratic Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben got one walleye, two crappies, and a perch. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith landed only one fish, but her walleye was the first catch of the day for the official party.
DNR officials say through Monday, about 418,000 fishing licenses had been purchased, up from 409,00 last year and about 338,000 at the same juncture two years ago. The agency estimates that $1.58 billion is spent annually on sport fishing in Minnesota.
For a broader look at fishing across Minnesota, see the Outdoor News fishing report pages, 25 and 25 of this edition.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.