In some years, it threatens hypothermia under rainy skies and wretched cold. Other years, when sunscreen has not been packed in the tackle box, it yields the season’s first sunburn. And at times, it’s been known to put relationships to the test when the year’s most anticipated weekend of Minnesota fishing clashes with such trivialities as graduations, weddings and Mother’s Day.
Come hell or — as is the case this year — frozen water, the annual rite of the walleye fishing opener, which starts Saturday, will not be denied. Thanks to this extended wintry spring of our discontent, it will be, for many, like no opener in recent memory. Or, perhaps, no opener at all.
North of an imaginary east-west line dividing the state right about at Lake Mille Lacs, one of Minnesota’s top 10 walleye angling meccas, many lakes remain gripped by ice, shattering records that go back decades.
“Sad, sad, sad,” said Greg Thomas, owner of Gregory’s Resort in Garrison, Minn., on the western shore of Mille Lacs, describing what is normally a festive week leading to the kickoff of a summer fishing season that buoys the region’s economy. “We’ve still got about 24 inches of ice out in the middle of the lake right now. It’s just a bummer for me — I’ve got people canceling right and left.”
‘It’ll work out’
Fringes of the lake along shore are clear of ice, as are some bays and inlets, but Thomas is unsure if ice will be totally out of the lake even by the weekend following the opener.
“It’s just nuts,” he said. “In the 23 years I’ve been at this, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
On the upside, he said, it could bode well for a stronger season later in May and into June, when business tends to level off.
“It’ll work out,” added Bill Eno, owner of neighboring Twin Pines Resort & Motel. “I look at the opener like it’s the first inning of a ballgame. We’ve got a ways to go.”
Once the water gets back to normal spring temperatures, the fish should be ready to bite because there is not a lot of forage in the lake. “The fish can’t go anywhere, and they’re always good to eat,” Eno said.
Both Eno and Thomas said the frozen lake is likely to put a crimp on gill-netting of walleye by American Indian bands, a sore point with many sport anglers and resort owners.
To the north, at Rainy Lake on the Canadian border, “ice-out is later than normal but not exceedingly out of range,” said Pete Schultz, head of the International Falls, Ranier and Rainy Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Rainy River is flowing well, but Rainy Lake remains frozen except for a few bays.
Things improve heading south.
Under a steady drizzle and leaden skies, no boats were to be seen on Forest Lake Thursday morning, but Gary Kennedy, who owns Timm’s Marina on the south shore of Lake 3 in the chain, said he expects to be very busy Saturday. The ice on Forest Lake finally went out last weekend. “In 30 years, that’s probably the latest I’ve ever seen [ice-out],” he said. “It’s just crazy.”
The biggest headache for Kennedy has been compressing what usually takes three weeks of preparation for the opener into one week of work. “I’ve been piling up a lot of hours.”
Spawning schedule is off
Things also are looking good on Madison Lake east of Mankato, where the ice — while late to leave — has been gone for more than two weeks, said Ryan White, owner of White’s Corner Bait, and walleye already are showing signs of activity. “We’re expecting a really good year,” he said.
While The Winter That Wouldn’t Die has created an abundance of ice, it’s also created a shortage of a variety of live baits on which anglers depend. Leeches, usually harvested from northern swamps, are in particularly short supply, as are some types of minnows that walleyes favor.
It’s also thrown off the spawning schedule of walleye, said Dirk Peterson, fisheries chief for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Usually by the opener, female walleyes have had a chance to lay their eggs. The DNR typically closes off some areas to fishing to protect spawning females, and this year some of those closures will be extended past the opener. (More information on the closures and which lakes are frozen can be found on the DNR’s website at www.dnr.state.mn.us/opener/fishing/index.html).
The still-frigid water poses an additional safety hazard, Peterson said, advising anglers to dress warmly and make sure to use the proper flotation devices.
Sales of fishing licenses in the days leading up to the opener, usually a rush, also have chilled markedly compared to past years, signaling many anglers are in a holding pattern for this year’s opener. As of Wednesday, the DNR had sold a total of 170,751 licenses. Last year that number was 275,751. License sales typically pick up as the season goes on, usually reaching about 1 million.