By Javier Serna
Anglers across the northern tier of Minnesota are staring down a potentially frozen fishing opener. Will there be open-water options?
What’s for certain is that whenever open water does present itself across the region, eager anglers will be fishing waters that very recently became ice-free.
Outdoor News spoke with a handful of northern Minnesota fishing guides, from Otter Tail County to Lake Vermilion, regarding how to approach fishing right after ice-out.
Each seemed to offer a slightly different spin on a similar themes – fishing in shallower water with lighter tackle than they would during a more typical year. Here are some tips worth considering.
Phil Jensen, of PT’s Guide Service in Otter Tail County, said he believes there should be a decent amount of open water in that area for the May 14 opener.
“It’s going to be close,” he said, as April drew to a close with four days of rain in the forecast. “I think that will really help us out.”
He suspects his walleye-fishing strategy will involve fishing the first breakline in lakes.
“If (walleyes) are coming off their spawn, they may be resting out there,” Jensen said.
Shiners won’t likely be running yet, so he’ll opt for a fathead or small sucker minnow.
“Instead of ripping that jig, you’ll want to be dragging it, with maybe a twitch now and then,” he said.
Those who fish rigs will want to shorten their snells to maybe 12 to 15 inches, to keep the bait near the lake bottom.
Hays Baldwin, a guide in the Brainerd area expects good things on the fishing opener.
“It’s going to be very good, but the bite is going to be a shallow-water bite in current areas,” he said.
While there may be ice on many area lakes when the opener arrives, Brainerd-area lakes have plenty of current areas that should be open.
“We may be fishing some pre-spawn or spawning walleyes,” Baldwin said.
In 2013, he recalls fishing the narrower areas that had more current, which opened up water around neckdowns, channels, and creeks.
He suggests throwing hair jigs or Rapala Rippin’ Raps.
Those hair jigs under cold conditions can be worked with small fatheads, but you can even fish them sans minnows.
“It is a slim profile, and it’s more of a finesse presentation, but you can still impart fast action on the bait,” he said. “You typically want to get away with the lightest jig you can, but with the hair jigs, there’s a bit of an exception because the hair slows down the drop. A ¼-ounce tends to be best fishing from 5 to 12 feet of water.”
One other note: Baldwin said that inlets are better than outlets for fishing action.
Tom Neustrom was of the belief late last week that it might be tough to find open water in his area around Grand Rapids. But assuming there is open water to be had …
“When you’re fishing walleyes when the ice just goes out, you have to think shallow,” he said.
Most the fish will be post-spawn, and most will be male fish, Neustrom added.
He said he’ll be dropping his jig head size to 1⁄16-ounce, most likely, and will fish in about 8 feet of water while using the smallest minnows he can find.
He recalled fishing in similar conditions with coveted spottail shiners during an opener past.
“(Walleyes) would pick it up and drop it,” Neustrom said. “We had to go to a lighter method – just lift it up and barely move it. You couldn’t get them to commit very well.”
So if you’re having trouble setting the hook on these light biters, Neustrom suggests giving them 10 to 15 seconds before setting the hook.
“You almost let them swim with it like bass fishing with plastics,” he said. “That sounds like a long time, but the hookup percentage is much better when you give them that time.”
Neustrom also suggests that anglers fishing just after ice-out seek lakes with a little bit of stain in the water, rather than clearer lakes, which often don’t produce fish early without wind or clouds later in the day.
Jason Boser guides mostly around Grand Rapids and Deer River. He said late last week that there was close to two feet of ice on Leech and Winnibigoshish lakes in late April.
“The water is going to be real cold,” Boser said regarding the opener. “Everything you do, you will have to slow down to make things happen. (Walleyes) don’t seem to be real aggressive right after ice-out.”
Boser said he’d be looking for fish between the shallow areas where walleyes spawned with rock and gravel, and areas with more current.
He recalled an opener on Winnie during which the only place there wasn’t ice on the lake was along the migration route between Winnie and Little Cutfoot Sioux.
“The fish were just loaded in there,” he said. “I’m going to be looking for current or the closest areas to where they spawned.”
He advises against using big shiners under these conditions.
“They are better if they are smaller,” he said.
“Other than that, I guess, depending on the water, I will always start out in the shallower water,” he said. “A lot of times right after ice-out, they tend to be in that little deeper water. If they were spawning in 2 to 3 feet of water, then you may want to drop down to the closest 10- to 12-foot water you can find. They may be laying there, waiting.”
Matt Snyder, a Soudan-based guide on Lake Vermilion, was not optimistic about open water on the northern Minnesota lake for the opener.
“Pike Bay is one of the first places to open up, because of the influx of water,” he said.
On Vermilion, Snyder suspects that other areas first to open will not be accessible to most anglers, “unless they have a public boat launch there,” he said.
Whenever fishable water comes on the Big V, Snyder said it’s best to start shallow and “work you way to deeper water.”
Bait-wise, he said tries to keep his bait, whether a jig and a minnow or other plastics, to 3 inches long or shorter.
He’ll be keying in on the 4- to 8-foot depths, and he’ll likely be focusing more on the afternoon than the morning, once the water has had time to warm up.
The north shorelines with the most sun exposure are good places to look to, he said.
“Areas that get all that southern sun are good starting points,” he said.
Another tip: Once water has really opened up, pay attention to where wind may be pushing the warmer, shallow water.
“Try to follow the wind and where it’s moving the warmest water,” Snyder said.