A mild start to winter in Minnesota is limiting ice fishing and shutting down snowmobilers. But the void of ice and snow has made other outdoor activities more doable. From late-season grouse hunting to open-water fishing on the North Shore and in the Mississippi River at Red Wing, Minnesota hunters and anglers are changing their patterns to take advantage of the fair weather.
North Shore fishing
It’s a lot like April right now on Lake Superior, where fishing boats as small as 14 feet are working the North Shore for lake trout and Lake Superior Kamloops rainbow trout. Steelhead (catch and release) and the occasional chinook salmon also are being caught. Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General in Duluth, said anglers also have been fishing from shore near stream mouths.
He said Lake Superior water temperatures in the area are 40 to 45 degrees, up from the norm of 35 to 37 degrees. In those conditions at this time of year, when the water has a tendency to be calm, anglers can jig for trout in 200 feet of water or troll for them in shallower depths.
“The launches and ramps are open and people are taking advantage of it,” Francisco said.
Kamloops trout, or “loopers,” have become increasingly popular, he said. Planted in Lake Superior in the 1970s, the fish kept by anglers are typically 22 to 26 inches long.
“They’re good eating this time of year,” Francisco said.
On Lake Superior, the lake trout season closes at the end of September. But the season reopened Dec. 1.
“Winter fishing in Duluth is the best-kept secret in the whole world,” Francisco said.
Walleyes in Red Wing
You can almost set your clock to the cold-weather walleye season on the Mississippi River, below the Red Wing dam. In late November, the fish migrate from Lake Pepin to feed and hover in a 2-mile stretch of Pool 4.
This year, high water levels have enhanced the fishery even as warmer temperatures have made it more fishable. And the bite has been strong.
“They’re having a feeding binge,” said Marty Hahn, owner of Mississippi River Walleyes guide service. “It used to be a hidden jewel, but it’s really not that hidden any more.”
Last weekend, with above-normal air temperatures and light wind, about 100 boats a day were on the river.
“In the last seven or eight days, the walleye and sauger bite has been phenomenal,” said Tom Bukkila of Everts Resort in Hager City, Wis. “Lots of boats have been bringing out their limits.”
Bukkila said the walleyes have been biting in 17 to 22 feet of water. Hahn said he uses two basic approaches: dropping heavier jigs and pulling them against the current or changing to lighter jigs and keeping the fishing line vertical.
Minnesota and Wisconsin residents must have their home-state licenses on the river. The limit is any combination of walleyes and saugers up to six fish. Walleyes need to be at least 15 inches long to keep.
Grouse and pheasant
With minimal snow cover and unseasonable warmth, current conditions for late-season grouse hunting are so good in Minnesota that hunters should be careful not to overdo it, said Jerry Kolter, a big-time grouse hunter and guide who lives near Sandstone.
“You can overhunt them,” he said. “They kind of group up for where they are going to be for the winter.”
Usually, snow covers the ground by the time resident ruffed grouse clump together. The snow keeps the birds less active and hinders dogs. But this year, soft ground and melting conditions have been very conducive to late-season outings.
“I’ve had a bunch of clients call up and say they’re doing really well this year,” Kolter said.
Grouse populations cycle and there are regional differences within the ups and downs. But the current mid-decade status has been generally favorable, Kolter said. He said populations in the central region of state have been holding up even though hunters routinely give that territory a good pounding.
Farther north, in the Grand Rapids area, grouse numbers have been down, but still productive for hunting. Where Kolter used to flush five birds an hour, he now flushes one or two.
“The drumming counts were up this year, but reproduction wasn’t there,” Kolter said.
Jay Johnson, an expert grouse hunter who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), agreed that in most years, grouse hunting is over by now. But given the current conditions, the game birds are very huntable, especially in sunny, brushy swamp edges.
“If they don’t have enough snow to snow-roost, they use the marshes,” Johnson said. Those locations — especially if they are located close to food sources such as catkins or hazel brush — provide thermal protection and cover from predators.
But while the unseasonable December weather has been a blessing for grouse hunters, it’s been a curse in one important regard for pheasant hunters: A lot of cattail sloughs are unfrozen and unwalkable.
Johnson said Minnesota pheasant hunters in the western and southwestern parts of the state have had “good, not great’’ success. Minnesota grouse and pheasant seasons run until Jan. 3, same as South Dakota. For hunters who trek to Nebraska, roosters can be hunted until Jan. 31. In Iowa, the pheasant season ends Jan. 10.
The Minnesota deer hunting muzzleloader season ends Sunday, but bowhunting for deer continues until Dec. 31. And with archery kills of adult bucks running 14 percent higher than a year ago, bow hunters have more than warm weather to be excited about.
“It’s a good year for trophy bucks, and we still have a lot of time,” said John Shaffer, owner of Shaffer Performance Archery in Burnsville.
So far, according to the DNR’s Steve Merchant, bow hunters have killed 8,686 adult bucks. That’s 14 percent more than the 7,622 taken by bow and arrow at this time a year ago. Meanwhile, Merchant said archery deer licenses have increased in number by about 2 percent, to 107,514 year. Archery deer licenses may still be purchased.
Junior Larsen of Bwana Archery in Little Canada said December in most years is reserved for hard-core bow hunters. But this year, they will be joined by fair-weather types. He said the benefits include catching bucks off guard in the secondary mating season, when female deer that weren’t bred during the original rut come into estrus.
Another reason to bow-hunt in December is that gun noises have subsided and “bucks are walking around again,” Larsen said.
Bow hunters won’t be restricted now in their movements by layers of warm clothes.
“It’s nice not to be out there dressed up like the Michelin man,” Shaffer said.
With Minnesota’s goose hunting season running until Dec. 23 in the north, Dec. 28 in the central zone and Jan. 2 in the south, there still is lots of time to bag birds. But it’s complicated.
“In a normal year, this would be fantastic,” the DNR’s Steve Cordts said of the mild weather. “But the way things are going, I’m not optimistic.’’
Cordts, stationed in Bemidji, said Canada goose hunting was good for a while around the Fergus Falls area this fall. But the geese in that area and further south in Lac qui Parle County, another stronghold, have not been flocking en masse like in years past.
Even in Rochester, where goose-hunting guide Dean Tlougan said bird numbers are strong, the hunt has been vexed by muddy fields and open grassy areas where the geese congregate and feed away from decoys.
“It’s uncanny,” Tlougan said. “I haven’t seen this for a while.”
Still, he said, his own groups of hunters shot 300 geese last weekend and demand — like the weather — isn’t cooling off.