In the normal spectacle of Minnesota’s fishing opener, a half-million anglers scatter across the state, mainly in search of walleyes.
But this year, with some 200,000 of those license-holders being urged to fish close to home in the seven-county metro area, there’s not nearly enough walleyes to go around.
To fill the void, a lot of opening day anglers will target crappies, bluegills, northern pike, perch and catch-and-release bass.
“A lot of people are wondering, ‘What’s this going to be like next week?’ ” said Josh Stevenson, owner and general manager of Blue Ribbon Bait & Tackle in Oakdale. “I suspect there will be a lot of panfishing in shallow water.”
Already, Stevenson said, Twin Cities area lakes and rivers are busy. The scene before the May 9 opener for inland walleye and northern pike has included an unusually large number of novices who have turned to fishing as an approved outdoor activity during the pandemic, Stevenson said.
“I’m seeing brand-new people come in,” he said. “It’s a good thing we’ve got tons of water.”
For every big-name lake such as Minnetonka, Waconia, Independence, White Bear, Bald Eagle and Big Marine, there’s hundreds of lesser known fishing spots in the Twin Cities sure to be visited, if not overrun.
The Mississippi and St. Croix rivers will absorb a big chunk of the impact and inner-city lakes such as Phalen and Como in St. Paul; Nokomis and Harriet in Minneapolis and Hyland in Bloomington are certain to be in play.
According to a state government inventory of Minnesota lakes, the seven counties in and around the Twin Cities feature 476 lakes of at least 50 acres in size and a host of smaller casting areas, including fishable neighborhood holes.
No one knows how busy they’ll all be on the opener, especially if the weather is good, but crowding is inevitable. In 2019, anglers from the seven-county metro area accounted for 41 % of all resident fishing licenses sold in Minnesota. By contrast, 40 % of Minnesota’s walleyes live in 10 large lakes outside the Twin Cities. Mille Lacs and Lake Pepin are the closest.
DNR Enforcement Assistant Director Greg Salo said the oft-repeated, expert advice for anglers to fish close to home this year sets up a Catch 22. It’s undesirable for health reasons for people to travel far from home. But constraining the movement of so many anglers who live in the Twin Cities will create tangles that will challenge the need for social distancing.
“I’m going to guess that some of these accesses are going to be fairly crowded,” Salo said.
Complicating matters at some lakes, the DNR hasn’t completed ramp maintenance, including installation of some docks. Salo repeated the agency’s advice for anglers to plan ahead and consider alternatives to peak launch times and high-demand landings.
Explore alternatives in the metro online on the DNR’s fishing pages. A key tool is LakeFinder, a database searchable by county name or lake name. Details for each lake include subsections that describe fish populations, access sites and fish-stocking histories.
Last year’s pages included tips on where to fish by region (dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/outlooks.html). The Central Region outlook included advice on metro waters and lakes outside the seven-county area reachable via day trip.
For instance, the outlook suggested the Hinckley area for an “Up North” fishing experience at the trio of Island, Sand and Sturgeon lakes in northern Pine County. The lakes hold northern pike, panfish, walleye and bass.
In the Lake City area, there’s a good population of walleyes at Lake Byllesby near Cannon Falls. North of Rochester there is Lake Zumbro, another lake stocked with walleyes.
The online pages also highlight metro ponds managed by the DNR’s Fishing in the Neighborhood program. Carver Lake in Woodbury, Cobblestone in Apple Valley and Thompson Lake in West St. Paul are three.
Northern Minnesota resort owner Megan Boulton said she was worried by the government’s “fish close to home” advice, but has managed a near sellout of the 14 cabins that she bought last year with her husband, Rob Szymczak, on Bowstring Lake.
DNR has said that while long-distance fishing travel is discouraged, it’s not illegal and anglers won’t be ticketed.
“It’s hard to keep Minnesotans away from their fishing,” Szymczak said.
COVID-19 prompted opener cancellations at Bowstring Shores northwest of Deer River, but replacement bookings have helped fill the gap, she said.
Customers are going along with a wide range of health precautions, including slightly shorter stays to allow the resort more time to disinfect its cabins between arrivals of new groups.
“We’re taking a lot of steps to keep people safe,” she said.
Ron Schara, president of MN-FISH Sportfishing Foundation, said anglers who safely travel into Greater Minnesota for the opener will provide badly needed business to resorts and relieve fishing pressure in the metro area.
His nonprofit group has lobbied Gov. Tim Walz to further loosen temporary regulations around fishing.
“This is the peak time for fishing fever … always has been,” Schara said. “If you can practice safe distancing close to home you can do it away from home.”