BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Heading into April, Henry Drewes said he figured this year’s Minnesota fishing opener would offer conditions more like June than mid-May. Springlike weather beginning in early March brought a premature end to ice fishing across the state, and this year’s May 15 fishing opener is the latest it can be.

Minnesota statute sets the fishing opener as the Saturday two weeks before the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, which this year is Saturday, May 29.

Henry Drewes, Northwest Region DNR fisheries supervisor, Bemidji. (Photo/ Minnesota DNR)
Henry Drewes, Northwest Region DNR fisheries supervisor, Bemidji. (Photo/ Minnesota DNR)

For Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, the predictions for summerlike conditions on opening day changed with the arrival of April and its barrage of cold, windy and occasionally snowy weather.

“We’ve had quite a turn in the weather, and that May 15 opener may not prove that much different for anglers than a May 9 or 10 opener,” Drewes said.

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Walleyes will be done spawning, but the gap between the spawn and the opener isn’t as large as it once appeared to be, he said.

“I would expect that if we start seeing 50s and 60s (temperatures) return here, May 15 could be a very good opener,” Drewes said. “Those fish will still just be post-spawn, maybe getting a little more hungry than they would be on a normal opener, calendar-wise.

“But I’m optimistic; weatherwise, I think it’s going to be a good year to have a later opener.”

The later opener also means opening weekend doesn’t coincide with Mother’s Day, as it does most years; Mother’s Day this year is Sunday, May 9.

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Big lake options

As with previous openers, the largest lakes in the Northwest Region – Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Cass and Leech – will be popular opening-day destinations, and walleye outlooks on all four generally are favorable.

In addition, Otter Tail Lake is the site for this year’s Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener after last year’s event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The late opener could be especially beneficial for anglers on Lake of the Woods, the northernmost large lake in the region and often the last to lose its ice. According to DNR data, the ice on Lake of the Woods this year went out on Friday, April 23.

Since 1985, the median ice-out date on Lake of the Woods is May 3, the earliest ice-out date recorded was April 8, 2012, and the latest ice-out date was two years later – May 21, 2014 – DNR statistics show.

“The earlier the ice-out, typically the better the opener” on Lake of the Woods, Drewes said. “I think Lake of the Woods will be good.”

How good could hinge on the weather in the days leading up to the opener, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn.

If there’s a warm snap and water temperatures rise quickly, the conditions could push walleyes farther offshore than they normally would be, Talmage said. That isn’t predicted in the extended forecast, which calls for high temperatures in the upper 50s to low 60s in the coming days, with nighttime lows in the mid 30s to low 40s.

“I’d anticipate we’d still have a lot of fish hanging out in the (Rainy) river and around the southeast end of the lake” for the opener, Talmage said, an area that includes Four-Mile Bay and Pine Island.

Anglers try their luck for walleyes and saugers in May 2019 on Lake of the Woods during the opening weekend of Minnesota's fishing season. This year's Minnesota Fishing Opener is Saturday, May 15. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Anglers try their luck for walleyes and saugers in May 2019 on Lake of the Woods during the opening weekend of Minnesota's fishing season. This year's Minnesota Fishing Opener is Saturday, May 15. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Fewer keepers

Based on fall population assessments, anglers might have a tougher time finding keeper-size walleyes on Lake of the Woods. Walleye populations overall remain strong, Talmage said, but the abundance of 15- to 16-inch walleyes – the perfect “eater-size” fish for many anglers – is down.

Talmage attributes the trend to weaker hatches in 2016 and 2017. On the upside, populations of smaller walleyes and larger “slot” fish in the 19½- to 28-inch protected size range are very healthy, he said.

“A big part of that has to do with the regulation that protects those spawning-size fish,” Talmage said. “And so the spawning stock looks really good.”

Saugers could help pick up the slack for anglers seeking frying-pan fish, Drewes said. A staple of the big lake’s booming ice fishing industry, saugers generally hang out in deeper water than their larger walleye cousins.

“The sauger population remains very abundant, with a lot of 12- to 14-inch fish out there,” Drewes said. “So, if anglers target sauger technique-wise, they’re probably going to do very good.”

Pike have long since spawned and could be more active than most openers, providing yet another option, Drewes said.

Red looks golden

Upper Red Lake, some 40 miles south of Baudette, also looks to be another good bet come opening day. Anglers can keep three walleyes, but only one larger than 17 inches, on Upper Red.

Upper Red Lake holds an excellent population of 13- to 19-inch walleyes, and prognosticators say they expect fishing to be good for the May 15 Minnesota Fishing Opener. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Upper Red Lake holds an excellent population of 13- to 19-inch walleyes, and prognosticators say they expect fishing to be good for the May 15 Minnesota Fishing Opener. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

“The walleye population is healthy,” Drewes said. “They’re very abundant, and there’s lots of fish between 13 and 19 inches.”

Opening weekend on Upper Red tends to attract anglers to the mouth of the Tamarack River on the big lake’s eastern shoreline. This year’s later opener could mean the walleyes will be less congregated near the mouth of the river, Drewes said.

“With a little longer period between post-spawn and the opener this year, maybe those fish scatter down the shorelines a little bit, and maybe the boats will scatter down the shoreline,” he said. “That’s what I would encourage an angler to do.”

Jonny Petrowske, a veteran fishing guide from Waskish, said water levels on Upper Red look good, and anglers who have been trying to target the lake’s famous slab crappies in recent days are “literally plagued with nuisance walleyes.” Crappie fishing is year-round in Minnesota.

Petrowske, who traps shiner minnows for sale to bait dealers across northern Minnesota, said the run of spottail shiners is late because of the lingering cold air and water temperatures. That could work in anglers’ favor come opening day.

Jonny Petrowske, a longtime fishing guide from Waskish, Minn., said conditions are prime for an excellent Minnesota Fishing Opener on Upper Red Lake when the season opens Saturday, May 15. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Jonny Petrowske, a longtime fishing guide from Waskish, Minn., said conditions are prime for an excellent Minnesota Fishing Opener on Upper Red Lake when the season opens Saturday, May 15. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Find the bait, find the walleyes, as the old saying goes.

“I think we’re going to have an incredible fishing opener, I really do,” Petrowske said. “There’s a lot of fish out there – it’s going to be a barn burner.”

Other good bets

Walleye numbers on Cass Lake and Leech Lake also are in “excellent shape,” Drewes said.

“Walleyes are rather abundant up to about 20 to 23 inches” on Cass, he said. “Those fish normally are way up in the system early in the year – they’re up in Kitchi or Big Rice and in Andrusia.

Fishing guide and product promoter Brian Brosdahl of Bro's Guide Service plays a fish that hit a jig and a golden shiner in June 2018 on Cass Lake in northern Minnesota. Cass Lake should be a good option for walleye fishing again this year, according to DNR fisheries managers. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Fishing guide and product promoter Brian Brosdahl of Bro's Guide Service plays a fish that hit a jig and a golden shiner in June 2018 on Cass Lake in northern Minnesota. Cass Lake should be a good option for walleye fishing again this year, according to DNR fisheries managers. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

“Given an earlier spawn than normal, those fish may have trickled back down, and there may be a little better fishing on Cass Lake proper than normal. But the whole chain will have fish – both up the Turtle River chain and the Mississippi chain.”

Leech Lake, meanwhile, has a diversity of walleye age-classes ranging from 13 inches up to 25 inches or so, Drewes said.

“The earlier spawning could be conducive to a good opener on Leech, too, depending on how the weather goes,” he said. “But in terms of the fish available for anglers, they’re in very good shape – multiple different sizes.”

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Across the region, the early ice-out means boat ramps and docks are going to be in “Grade A shape” for the opener, Drewes said.

When it comes to outdoors “happenings,” they don’t get much bigger than the Minnesota fishing opener. As light at the end of the long, dark pandemic tunnel begins to emerge, that may be truer than ever this year.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Drewes said. “It was not a harsh winter, but it seems like it’s been long. It’s come back a couple of times.”