Thanks to an extremely stubborn and extended winter, Minnesota anglers have some interesting choices to make when deciding where to fish on the 2013 inland walleye and northern pike opener on May 11.
The state is blessed with an abundance of world-class walleye fisheries, from its border waters to countless inland lakes, streams, and rivers. Normally, anglers have infinite options north to south, but the late spring has left many lakes locked in ice, forcing fishermen to rethink plans and, in many cases, forsake traditional opening day fishing grounds.
Given the upheaval and uncertainty surrounding one of Minnesota's richest rites of spring, we checked in with top guides and other contacts around the state, to offer anglers list of top options for hooking up with walleyes and pike on the unusual opener of 2013. Keep in mind that even if you can't make it to one of our choices, the patterns provided for each should transfer well to similar waters. Here's a look at 8 great Minnesota fishing opener hotspots.
St. Croix River
May means walleyes and saugers on the scenic St. Croix for Hall of Fame fishing guide Dick 'The Griz ' Grzywinski. In a normal spring, he follows the bite from the Mississippi River near Red Wing up to Prescott, Wisconsin, in mid-April, then into the lower Croix from Taylors Falls down to the confluence — focusing on eyes in the lower reaches toward the end of the month. 'It's a little behind schedule this year, ' he says, after hitting the river last weekend for the border water opener. 'We're right on top of the spawn, and the best action was down by Prescott. '
As the water continues to warm throughout the week, Griz expects the action to pick up steam throughout the system. Vertical jigging a beefy fathead on a 3/8- to ¼-ounce Northland Fire-Ball, in classic snap-fall cadence, is his first line of attack. Shad- and minnow-imitating cranks also take fish in depths of 5 to 6 feet in the upper river.
Contact: Guide Dick Grzywinski, 651/771-6231, fishwiththegriz.com; Blue Ribbon Bait & Tackle (Oakdale), 651/777-2421, blueribbonbait.com.
Revered for its large- and smallmouth bass, this 14,729-acre Twin Cities gem also holds an amazing walleye fishery. Fish size is excellent, with the proportion of 20-inch-plus 'eyes taken in DNR surveys doubling since 2006. The lake typically offers weed-, sand-, and rock-based locational patterns, but with ice-out just occurring, fast-warming areas with emerging weeds could be golden. Hard-bottom areas with current are also solid bets for jig-and-minnow, slipbobber, and minowbait presentations.
Contacts: Guide Travis Frank, 612-382-6927, trophyencounters.com; Wayzata Bait, 952/473-2227.
Mille Lacs Lake
Always ranking high among Gopher State hotspots, this 128,000-acre honeyhole could be a sleeper due to the late ice cover, not to mention the cloud of controversy surrounding special regulations and tribal walleye netting hanging over the lake. Thorny issues aside, it should still offer some of the state's finest walleye and pike fishing on the opener and beyond. In fact, the biggest question among savvy locals was not whether they'd be able to fish, but how much of the icepack would disappear before opening day.
'We're not sure what to expect, ' says veteran guide Mike Christensen, who hails from Hunter Winfield's resort out of Isle on the big lake's south shore. As of Saturday prior to opening weekend, he reported that anglers were still ice fishing Isle Bay. 'With warmer weather and wind in the forecast, the bays and at least part of the lake should be fishable on the opener, ' he noted.
Lacking a climatological crystal ball, Christensen predicts three prime patterns will be in play. 'Look for any current areas that attract spawning walleyes, such as inflows or necked down areas between the mainland and islands, ' he says. 'Shallow reefs should also hold plenty of walleyes, if they're ice-free. ' Christensen's go-to weapons are ¼- to 3/8-ounce Lindy jigs tipped with fathead or shiner minnows, or artificial softbaits such as a YUM Money Minnow. 'Night trolling stickbaits like Bombers or Smithwick Rogues could also be a hot ticket, ' he adds.
For pike, Christensen adds another option. 'Fast-warming areas should hold some giants on opening weekend, ' he says, explaining that he plans to deploy small spoons, spinnerbaits, and sucker minnows for these coldwater gators.
Contacts: Guide Mike Christensen, Hunter Winfield's Resort, 800/414-4298, hunterwinfields.com; Guide Kevin McQuoid, 320/676-8709, macstwinbay.com.
Along with the Rainy, Brosdahl also picks the mighty Mississippi as a dynamite place to open the season. 'In the north, anyplace the river enters a lake should be great, ' he says. Examples include lakes Bemidji and Winnibigosh, but its worth noting that tailwaters below dams are also perennial early walleye hotspots. 'The lower river — Pools 3, 4, and 5 — will be good, too, ' he adds. 'Expect postspawn walleyes with the feedbag on. '
Brosdahl's weapons of choice include a Northland Rock-It Jig tipped with swimming-style softbait, Northland Gami jig tipped with a fathead minnow, and a hair jig, either plain or sweetened with a crappie minnow. Top spots include a variety of side channels, cuts, sloughs, wing dams, and other classic areas.
Contacts: Upper Mississippi: Guide Brian Brosdahl, email@example.com, brosguideservice.com; Lower Mississippi: 4 Season Sports (Red Wing), 651/388-4334 4seasonsports.com; Blue Ribbon Bait & Tackle (Oakdale), 651/777-2421, blueribbonbait.com.
Shagawa Lake/Wilderness Waters
A week before the opener, the walleye-rich Canadian Shield lakes of the Ely area were cloaked in ice. But that didn't stop veteran guide Jim Orcutt from planning for success. 'We haven't seen a spring like this in 16 years, ' he says. 'There's a lot of ice around, but I think it's going to be better than last season, when there was an extremely early spring. '
Shagawa Lake is one of Orcutt's favorite fisheries, and a little ice won't stop him from fishing it — even if the entire 2,344 acres aren't in play. 'There should be enough open water where the Burntside River flows in to work with, ' he says. Orcutt's other top picks include the Stony and Kawishiwi river systems, where he predicts prespawn walleyes will congregate on hard-bottom areas below pools and tributary inflows.
For flowing water, he recommends a Lindy Watsit jig or a Fuzz-E-Grub tipped with a minnow, fished slow and steady close to bottom. In Shagawa, a simple split-shot rig with a minnow gets the nod.
Contact: Guide Jim Orcutt, 218/349-3658, jimthefishguy.com.
St. Louis River
With water temperatures reaching 40ºF a week before the opener, the lower St. Louis was stoked with resident fish and migratory spawners from Lake Superior. Longtime river rat and guide Capt. Charlie Nelson advises anglers to vertical jig rock and gravel shoals, especially around inflows, above Boy Scout Landing up to the Highway 23 bridge. 'I like Lindy X-Change jigs because I can switch weights and colors to match changes in current and the mood of the fish, ' he says, noting that a fathead or shiner tipping is hard to top.
Slow-trolling crankbaits is another solid option.
Contact: Capt. Charlie Nelson, 218/628-1681, stlouisriverguy.com.
Although best known for tapping Minnesota's Northwoods lakes, iconic iceman and walleye sage Brian 'Bro ' Brosdahl offers flowing water solutions for success this season. 'The Rainy River is a top choice, ' he says. 'The fishery has been going strong, and should be a great place on the inland opener as well, with schools of walleyes both in the river, and moving out to the rivermouth and Morris Point Gap area of Lake of the Woods. ' Conventional wisdom dictates slow-dancing jig-and-minnow combos, but trolling minnowbaits behind bottom bouncers can produce as well.
The river and south shore shallows such as storied Zippel Bay are also pike hotspots, routinely yielding big numbers of fish — including goliath gators breaking the 40-inch barrier — and should be primed to produce pike on spoons and deadbait rigs.
Contact: Guide Brian Brosdahl, firstname.lastname@example.org, brosguideservice.com; Zippel Bay Resort, 800/222-2537, zippelbay.com.
Crow Wing Chain
Spanning 11 lakes along the Crow River, the chain offers excellent odds for catching walleyes anytime, but should shine in a late-spring scenario for numbers of fish, with a decent shot at a trophy. Guide Jason Durham recommends targeting shallow flats with a nightcrawler on a slipsinker rig, taking care to keep the sinker light, leader short, speed slow, and intermittent pauses abundant. He notes that shorebound anglers can score where the Highway 64 bridge splits Eleventh Crow Wing. Vertical jigging current areas is another classic game plan, as is trolling shallow-running crankbaits on the night shift.
Contact: Guide Jason Durham, 218/252-2278, go-fish-guides.com.