Minnesota anglers just can’t win: First they had to deal with lakes covered with ice on the fishing opener. Now the cold spring means a live bait shortage, too.
“You can’t trap minnows with ice on the lakes,’’ said Phil Koep, owner of Urbank Live Bait in Clitherall, Minn., a major bait wholesaler that serves 75 bait shops across northern Minnesota.
He has gotten some fathead, crappie and sucker minnows, but no spottail shiners — a favorite of many anglers who fish northern Minnesota waters. Lakes Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs and Red — major suppliers of shiner minnows — all were ice-covered last week, as were smaller lakes that also are tapped for the precious minnow.
And anglers who prefer leeches are mostly out of luck, too. The ponds and lakes where they normally are harvested also have been ice-covered.
“I’ve got no leeches,’’ said Ron Meuwissen, owner of Ken’s Bait in Chaska, a wholesaler who serves about 100 bait shops within 100 miles of the Twin Cities. “Last year I had 3,000 to 4,000 pounds by April 1.’’
Many of his leeches come from the White Earth and Red Lake Indian reservations, where lakes remain ice-covered .
Both Meuwissen and Koep expected to get some leeches soon, and they hope the minnow harvest picks up, but they said the live bait shortage likely will last at least several weeks, until ice disappears and waters warm.
Both said the situation is rare.
“I’ve been doing this for 38 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ Koep said. “My sales will be down 50 percent.’’
Said Meuwissen: “Once the opener comes and goes, that business is gone. You don’t make it up.’’
Shiner minnow shortage?
Besides weather, the discovery last year of zebra mussels in Lake Winnibigoshish also will reduce the availability of shiner minnows this season, said Ben Kellin, owner of Ben’s Bait in Grand Rapids.
That’s because the Department of Natural Resources is closing the lake to minnow harvest on May 22 — the average date that Winnie water temperature hits 55 degrees, which triggers zebra mussel reproduction. The invasive mussels produce microscopic larvae called veligers, which suspend in the water.
“We want to reduce the risk of spreading zebra mussels to other waters via bait transfers,’’ said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries manager in Grand Rapids.
But shiner minnows spawn in shallow water — when they can most easily be caught — when water temperature is about 60 degrees.
That means few shiners will be caught in Winnibigoshish this year.
“Winnie’s shiner is the smallest, nicest-jigging minnow,’’ Kellin said. “That’s what the real uproar is among true anglers here. They will miss that beautiful little minnow.’’
Kellin estimated Winnie shiners are worth about $1 million. He said the DNR should close the lake to minnow harvest when the water temperature hits 55 degrees.
“Then it’s a moving target,’’ Kavanaugh said. “We feel more comfortable having a date that everyone knows.’’
He said the DNR is trying to identify other lakes with shiners that could fill the void.
Lake Mille Lacs, another major supplier of shiners, also closes May 22 to minnow harvesters because it, too, is infested with zebra mussels.
Another factor could spell trouble for minnow-loving anglers. The long, cold winter has killed off some shallow minnow ponds.
“We know a lot of them froze out, because we can drive around and see the dead minnows,’’ said Jeff Koep, cousin of Phil Koep, who owns Spruce Center Bait in Miltona, Minn., a wholesaler who serves 40 bait shops and resorts in the Alexandria area.
But until minnow trappers start trapping in earnest, no one will know the extent of the freeze-out and whether the loss of some ponds will result in a larger minnow shortage.
“I’m hoping it’s a temporary thing, otherwise it’s going to be a long summer,’’ Meuwissen said.
And it’s uncertain whether any of this will affect live bait prices. For now, prices are stable.
Meanwhile, just as anglers are an optimistic lot, so too are bait dealers.
“I think it will be a great summer, once it gets going,’’ said Jeff Koep. “The economy is a little better. People are buying boats. We know the business is there if we can get them the product.’’
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org