Sunday, April 14th, 2024

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Sunday, April 14th, 2024

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

Minnesota anglers eagerly awaiting Rainy River season with early spring feeling likely

The early catch-and-release Rainy River fishing season boasts the chance to catch lots of walleyes and sauger. Some good-sized lunkers are available, too. (Photos courtesy of Lake of the Woods Tourism)

Baudette, Minn. — Spring hasn’t quite sprung along the U.S.-Canadian border, but an unseasonably warm winter has anglers “giddy with anticipation,” as one official put it, for the early spring walleye and sauger season to open on the Rainy River.

That’s because the river is known for its huge walleyes during its special spring season, which attracts anglers from throughout Minnesota and across the Midwest.

“The season is popular and getting more so every year,” said Kyle Gruis, owner of Log Cabin Bait and Liquor in Baudette, on Tuesday. “The river is pretty much ice-covered right now. It’s opened up periodically in some spots during the winter, and then closed as colder weather has pushed in. Right now, it’s snowing here and is supposed to get below zero tonight, then it’s going to warm again later in the week. So we’ll see when it opens up.”

The river typically remains ice-covered until the end of March. But because of the warmer winter, Gruis and others believe the Rainy will open earlier this year, with at least one public access ready for boat anglers by the third week of March, give or take.

“It’s impossible to predict the weather up here, but I think we’re probably two weeks ahead of schedule,” Gruis said. “We’ll have to wait and see, obviously. But certainly, some anglers are ready for the open water. Like I said, it’s a very popular time of year to fish for walleyes.”

‘A big-fish gene in this system’

The spring catch-and-release season for walleyes and sauger on the Rainy runs from March 1 through April 14. The season includes only the Rainy River and Four Mile Bay, state officials say.

The early Rainy River fishing season – catch and release for walleyes, sauger, and sturgeon – has what might be called a cult-like following. Trucks and rigs line up on near-access roads along the border water each spring.

Joe Henry is a charter boat captain, tournament angler, and executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. Spring walleye and sauger fishing on the Rainy River, he said, has become a tradition that’s been “passed down from generation to generation.”

“For many, it’s the first time they’ll splash their boats in the water for the year,” Henry said.

Echoing other officials, he said the spring season offers anglers a legitimate chance at catching a trophy walleye, with some fish in the 30-inch class.

“There’s a big-fish gene in this system,” Henry said. “There’s an abundance of forage, including tullibees that are high in fat and protein. Catching multiple big walleyes isn’t uncommon.”

He said walleyes from Lake of the Woods use the Rainy River to spawn. The influx of fish in spring provides some of the best angling of the year.

“It’s not just big fish, either,” he said. “If you time it right, you can catch a lot of fish, too. Some guys who fish hard will have 100-fish days. But every year is different. It’s a very unique season. You might be fishing with icebergs floating down the river and snow falling. Mother Nature is in control.”


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Keeping close tabs

The Minnesota DNR does annual assessment work in the spring and fall to keep close tabs on walleye and sauger populations throughout the Lake of the Woods/Rainy River system, said Mike Skoog, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Baudette.

Annual assessments, he said, allow fisheries officials to monitor fish abundance and age distribution, among other important information, from year to year.

According to the DNR, fall gill net sampling in 2023 showed fish abundance well above the historic average. The same is true for sauger.

“Walleye and sauger populations are healthy overall,” Skoog said. “The fishing is typically really good in the spring after ice-out, with plenty of big, pre-spawn females that attract anglers from all over, including some years from all over the country.”

Have patience

He said anglers need to have extra patience during the spring season. Not all public accesses on the river open at once. Oftentimes early in the season, only one is open (typically the boat ramp at Nelson Park in Birchdale is the first) for the entire system.

“It can get crammed in a hurry, especially early on,” said Skoog, adding that trucks and trailers can be parked on area roads as far as two to three miles from the public accesses. “You just have to slow down and be patient.”

Said Henry: “It can get really congested at boat ramps, so have everything ready to go when it’s your turn. Be courteous and helpful to others. Everyone is excited to fish, but remember that people have different ability levels … in backing their trailers and getting their boats in the water. Be patient and help out. The vast majority of anglers are very good about that.”

Fishing presentations

Gruis and others said spring fishing presentations for walleyes and sauger vary, including everything from jigging to trolling crankbaits. Most anglers, Gruis said, prefer to use jigs or various plastics tipped with live bait, typically minnows or frozen shiners.

“Both are effective,” he said.

“The majority of anglers will anchor. But those who know how to handle a boat on a river, they’ll troll so they can target certain areas.”

Be prepared for anything

Aside from fishing, Skoog from the DNR said anglers need to be prepared for “everything” during the spring season on the Rainy River. The weather, he said, can be unpredictable. Floating debris, from icebergs to trees, is commonplace.

“You have to aware of your surroundings and constantly monitor what’s happening on the river,” Skoog said. “Be ready for the cold and dress for it.”

Most importantly, wear a life jacket. “Absolutely wear one at all times,” he said. “Just don’t have it in the boat. If you fall in the water without one, cold, 35-degree water can take a lot out of you really quick. Be smart and wear one.”


Another feature of the Rainy River is the stellar sturgeon fishing. Lake sturgeon cannot be harvested through April 23, although catch-and-release fishing is legal before that date.

For more information, check the “Canada-Minnesota” border waters section of the Minnesota DNR’s fishing regulations handbook.

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