The sound of waves lapping against shorelines across northern Minnesota is good news for anglers and the resorts, bait shops and other businesses that cater to them.
Winter ice has been long gone in the south and is just a memory on nearly all of the state’s northern fishing lakes — the most popular destinations for many of Minnesota’s 1.4 million anglers.
And the early spring could spell good fishing when the season opens May 13.
“Ice-out was about two weeks ahead of normal, and our fish spawning is about a week ahead of normal,” said Henry Drewes, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries manager in Bemidji.
“Walleye spawning will be done everywhere by the opener,” he predicted.
That means fish may not be as concentrated, because walleyes disperse after spawning.
“But when you get a week or two of postspawn conditions before the season, fish get hungry, water temperatures usually warm and that generally translates into good openers,” Drewes said.
Fish are more active as the water warms. Water temperatures in the Bemidji area were around 50 degrees last week, said Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries manager.
“It could be 60 or 65 degrees by the opener; the fish would be feeding,” he said.
But anglers know there are no guarantees.
“Weather is the trump card for fishing success; it always is,” Drewes said.
Warm, sunny days preceding the opener could portend good fishing, just as snow and a frigid north wind could result in empty fry pans for the estimated 500,000 anglers who will wet a line on opening weekend.
Besides allowing anglers to make plans, the early ice-out means the DNR has been able to install most of the public access ramps and docks.
Top three lakes
Prospects are good for the three most popular fishing lakes in the state: Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods and Upper Red.
Ice went out on Mille Lacs on April 10, on Upper Red on April 11 and on Lake of the Woods on Wednesday.
Though walleye harvest last winter on Upper Red was less than expected, likely because of the availability of forage fish, Drewes expects anglers to flock there next month.
Because of the lower winter harvest and an abundance of spawning stock, the DNR liberalized fishing regulations on Upper Red this season. Anglers may keep four walleyes, with one over 17 inches. Last year, the season started with a three-fish bag limit, then increased to four in June.
“I don’t think that will attract more people, but it will increase the harvest,” Drewes said. “We expect a good turnout for the opener.”
Upper Red is no secret: The past three winters has seen the highest fishing pressure on record at the big lake.
Meanwhile, Lake of the Woods will attract more anglers than Upper Red. The lake has strong 2011 and 2013 year classes of walleyes, fish that range from 13 to 16 inches. “They should be quite abundant for anglers on the opener,” Drewes said.
Anglers also might find good numbers of 14- to 16-inch saugers. And northerns also will be done spawning by the opener, meaning fishing in the mouths of tributaries could be excellent, Drewes said.
Of course, there’ll be no Lake Mille Lacs walleyes in the fry pan this year. It will be catch-and-release only because of lingering concerns over the big lake’s walleye population. Still, the bite could be good.
“The winter bite was really good, and that’s usually a good indicator that the open-water bite will start that way, too,” said Brad Parsons, DNR regional fisheries manager. The fish in the strong 2013 year class that now dominates the lake range from 15 to 18 inches.
Mille Lacs will be closed to ANY walleye fishing from July 7 to July 27 but will remain open to fishing for other species, including smallmouth bass, northerns and muskies.
“It’s still a really good fishing lake,” Parsons said.
Here’s the outlook for some other popular lakes:
“Walleye abundance is strong, and only 20 percent of that walleye population is in the protected slot, “ Drewes said. “We have strong numbers of fish between 13 and 20 inches.” The protected slot is 20 to 26 inches, with one fish over 26 inches allowed, the same as last year.
“Cass will be really good,” Drewes said. “There’s a lot of 12- to 16-inch fish in the system.
“Winnie is sitting on a real strong 2013 year class,” said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids. “Those fish will be 16 to 17 inches. The protected slot is 18 to 23 inches, so there should be good numbers of fish to harvest.”
“The expectations are that fishing should be pretty good,” Kavanaugh said. “There’s a real strong 2012 year class, and we relaxed the protected slot this year to 20 to 26 inches. It had been 18 to 26 inches.”
The 2017 fishing regulations booklets are available now, and Kavanaugh urged anglers to get a copy. “There are so many different regulations I encourage anglers to take a look at the lakes they are going to fish so they know what the regulations are.”
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.