By Tim Lesmeister
Catching fish on the opening day of the season – May 14, this year – can only be accomplished if you understand how to get a particular species to bite given tough conditions, above or within the water.
It occurs to me that on the fishing opener, the weather typically is awful. Not just bad, but horrendous. It’s God’s way of making sure not all the fish are caught during that one weekend. The weather can be perfect for 10 days before the opener, but on the Friday, just before midnight of the opener, gale-force winds, dropping temperatures, and sometimes even snow or sleet can greet the hearty anglers who are determined to take to the water to keep their traditions alive.
In the 45 years that I’ve been criss-crossing Minnesota, fishing many different lakes and rivers that have hosted me on opening day, I believe approximately a half-dozen have been blessed with prime fishing conditions: perfect weather, the fish were where they should have been in their spawning cycle, I was able to get the bait I needed, and the lakes I was on had exceptional populations of the species we were targeting. I learned early on that if you want to catch fish on opening day, learn how to catch fish when the bite is tough.
So, the first lesson I learned is to realize that fish are going to be difficult to catch. Thus, every facet of the game plan must be executed flawlessly, and this can require resolve. The commitment to fishing hard and realizing there might be some time in between bites is paramount to being successful.
With that in mind, the right tools will result in the right results. If you’re fishing for walleyes, make sure you have lively shiners and fresh leeches. Use rods spooled with superline (braided line) and use fluorocarbon as leader material on your live-bait rigs to get extra sensitivity. I even tie my fluorocarbon directly to the braided line and use a rubber “snubber” to position the sinker. When the bite is tough, I keep 6 feet between the hook and sinker. This extra distance between the weight and the bait works wonders when the bite is tough.
When using jigs, make sure the lure is heavy enough to keep the bait on the bottom. Finicky walleyes won’t move much and they’ll hug the bottom. You need to put the bait right in front of their noses and make it’s easy for them to grab that lure.
Meanwhile, pike tend to be more aggressive, so they can be a better option when the bite is tough. Now, pike like suckers, but make sure you give them something with a smaller profile – suckers maybe 3 to 4 inches long. This time of year, when the water is cool, it seems like that can put pike on a diet of smaller bait.
Emerging vegetation in shallower water is always a good place to target pike this early in the season, and the best way to get the bait to them is to attach it to a jig and pitch it into the cabbage, coontail, and milfoil.
A fluorocarbon leader, instead of a heavy wire leader, is going to precipitate more action, but you must use a heavy fluorocarbon or pike will bite through it. My go-to leader size is 20-pound test, but I will go bigger if the fish are larger.
The presentation is simple. With your spinning rod, open the bail and use an underhand pitch to send a 1⁄4-, 3⁄8-, or 1⁄2-ounce jig tipped with a sucker into the pockets of vegetation. If the pike are there, they can’t resist a minnow dropped right before their eyes. Start shallow and slowly work into deeper water. Keep the drag pretty loose so there’s not so much pressure on the leader line. Then it’s tougher for pike to cut through it with their teeth.
Bass are fair game on opener these days. They have to be released, but they can be the goal by design. Bass, like pike, will be in shallow, emerging vegetation. You can catch both bass and pike by slowly retrieving a spinnerbait through the stalks of green. I always tip the hook on the spinnerbait with a 7-inch scented twister tail plastic worm to give the lure a bit more attraction.
One last thing I adjust on opener is my expectations. I plan for the worst and hope for the best. I know I’ll work for every fish I catch, and I also realize the in just a few short weeks, we’ll hit the peak period for every species in the lake. By mid-June, walleyes will be jumping in the boat, pike will be crushing any and every lure that passes before them, and bass will be coming off the spawn, hungry and willing to hurl themselves out of the water while shaking their heads and performing their bass acrobatics, just for us.
One thing that has been proved over the years and is obvious from all the great photos that Outdoor News receives right after opening day is that there are always anglers who find a body of water that provides an outstanding bite on opening day. Something just clicks on that lake or reservoir and the fish go on a feeding spree no matter the conditions.
Let’s hope on this upcoming opening day that it’s your boat that’s sitting on this productive spot, and if it happens, make sure to shoot some good photos and share this experience with us. Good luck out there!