Minnesota's Mankato Marble-Eyes

Minnesota's Mankato Marble-Eyes

Stacked with spawning walleyes, these southern Minnesota rivers -- each within reach of Mankato -- should offer up some of the best early-season fishing around! (March 2010)

With winter about to fade into the sunset, impatient anglers will soon be counting the days until the 2010 Minnesota walleye opener. For the next few months, a great deal of consideration will go into the choice of a destination for opening day and beyond. While a majority of fishermen will decide upon a favorite lake, they might be overlooking an option that could be less crowded, more peaceful and just as productive.

Minnesota anglers looking to target early-season walleyes should plan a trip to one of these southern Minnesota rivers around Mankato shortly after the season opens on May 15.

Photo by J.B. Kasper.

While many of Minnesota's rivers maintain a naturally reproducing population of walleyes, others are stocked with fry, fingerlings or yearlings. For the most part, any river or stream that is directly connected to a stocked or naturally producing walleye fishery is a possible target. How active walleyes will be in the middle of May depends upon a combination of the timing of the spring thaw, water temperatures and water levels. Soon after ice-out, as rivers begin to warm, walleyes will start looking for the right combination of sand, gravel, current and water depth needed for successful spawning.

From the largest rivers and many lakes, fish will often move into tributaries or feeder streams. During an average year, this walleye movement begins sometime in late April and gradually subsides toward the end of May, with fish becoming more scattered and less active in June. Generally, by the time of the opener, river walleyes in southern Minnesota have reached their destination and have often finished spawning, but that doesn't mean the bite is over. Although the larger females may become difficult to catch, the males remain near the nest for several weeks. These are hungry, aggressive fish.

Early in the season, a rubber-tailed jig-and-minnow combination seems to be the most consistent producer of strikes. Work the jig in and around rocks and rapids, always casting in a slightly downstream direction. This will allow the river's motion to lift your lure as it hits structure during your retrieve. The size of jig is dependent upon the strength of the current. Your retrieve should be slow enough to bounce off the bottom, yet fast enough so that it does not become lodged beneath obstructions. Work the shoreline as well, allowing your retrieve to run adjacent to the bank once it has moved out of the main current.

The following is a look at several rivers in the Mankato area of southern Minnesota. These tributaries of the Minnesota River and Mississippi River are productive walleye fisheries that should be considered by early-season anglers.

CANNON RIVER
An excellent choice for early-season walleyes, this river passes through several lakes at its onset. It is on this portion of the Cannon River that I will focus, as it passes through Le Sueur County and moves within 15 miles of the Minnesota River and Mankato. Beginning in the Shields Lake area of Rice County, northwest of the city of Faribault, the Cannon River circles to the southwest as it begins its eastward, 120-mile flow to the Mississippi River. In addition to natural reproduction that takes place along this entire route, more than 10 million walleye fry have been released by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources within this section of the river over the past five years.

After leaving Shields Lake, the Cannon River meanders to the east toward the city of Le Center. As the stream approaches and eventually moves through Gorman Lake, it begins to become a viable walleye option. Water levels will dictate how much of the river is fishable at this point, but look for fish to be congregated around the inlet and in the bay near the southeastern outlet. A small dam is located within a Le Sueur County park, before the river continues toward Sabre Lake. Accesses to Gorman Lake, and the shoreline of the outlet, can be found near the town of Cordova, along County Highway 2, and in the county park off County Highway 5. Although Gorman Lake suffers from a lack of really large fish, it can be quite productive, especially during the month of May.

Within a few miles, the Cannon River reaches the shoreline of Sabre Lake. A public access is located off of Le Sueur County Highway 2, adjacent to the inlet. Shore-fishing is an option here if there is enough flow, with a jig and minnow likely to turn up a few walleyes. This lake benefits from the free movement of fish upstream from Lake Tetonka, which makes it particularly inviting around the date of the opener. It is possible to catch some very impressive fish in and around Sabre Lake.

The river flows freely for the next six miles, although access to the Cannon River's bank is difficult to locate. Near the town of Waterville, it enters the north shore of popular Lake Tetonka, with public landings located north of Le Sueur County Highway 14, and within a city park just west of State Highway 13. The river exits Lake Tetonka and runs through Waterville, before it moves into Upper Lake Sakatah. This channel is an excellent jig-and-minnow location, and there is plenty of shoreline available. I have also caught walleyes beneath the bridge overpasses while drifting a fathead minnow beneath a bobber.

For several miles, the river then flows within Upper Lake Sakatah. To the east, an overpass along Rice County Highway 99, serves as a miniature channel allowing the river to enter Lower Lake Sakatah. Small creek chubs have been productive here in the past. A small dam is located at the outlet of the lower lake. From this point, the Cannon River continues eastward into Rice County. After falling over a dam, within the town of Morristown, portions of the river are accessible as it runs alongside State Highway 60.

Look for walleyes to stack up below the dam and be scattered within the river as it continues toward the town of Warsaw. The inlet into Cannon Lake is located just north of this small village, where another bridge overpass serves as a gathering place for spring walleyes. The river is entering the city of Faribault as it moves from Cannon Lake into Wells Lake. From this point, the Cannon River keeps rolling on toward the Mississippi River, continuing to produce walleyes as it does so.

For more information regarding the Cannon River, contact the Chamber of Commerce of the following cities: Elysian, (800) 507-7787, and Faribault, (507) 334-4381.

BLUE EARTH RIVER
As it travels through southern Minnesota, from the Iowa border to Mankato, much of the Blue Earth River is as beautiful as it is loaded with walleyes. The largest tributary of the Minnesota River, it carries the watershed of a majority of south-central Minnesota. The combination of three separ

ate forks, the west and middle beginning in northern Iowa and the east in Freeborn County, the Blue Earth River flows for more than 110 miles. During the past five years, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has stocked approximately 8 million walleye fry in this river. A majority of them have been released near the headwaters of the east fork, in Walnut Lake and Rice Lake, in Faribault County.

Although these shallow lakes are not usually viable options during the summer months, during periods of high water early in the season, some very nice walleyes are caught near the inlets and outlets of these lakes. The forks join near the town of Elmore, in western Faribault County. The Blue Earth River flows north from this point, following along U.S. Highway 169, past the cities of Blue Earth and Winnebago. It then continues into Blue Earth County and proceeds by the towns of Amboy and Vernon Center. As it turns to the east and moves away from the highway, access to the Blue Earth River becomes limited for several miles. It is here that its largest tributary, the Watonwan River, joins it. A few miles downstream, the water of the Blue Earth River flows over the Rapidan Hydroelectric Dam.

Blue Earth County's Rapidan Dam Park flanks the western shoulder of the dam, just north of Blue Earth County Highway 9. This expansive park provides plenty of access to the river, tent camping, a canoe launch and an incredible view from atop the 90-foot tall, 100-year-old structure. This downstream portion of the river is an excellent walleye producer throughout the summer but can be absolutely explosive in the last weeks of May. Tossing a jig and minnow could entice a strike at any location within the park, but working the scattered rocks found downstream of heavy rapids is particularly hot early in the year. When the river reaches the end of the park, an island of rock divides it.

Walleyes can be found in the rapids, atop the sand flat on the park side of the main channel, and in the deep pocket before the next bend in the river. A bait shop and café that sits at the entrance to the park, the Rapidan Dam Store has been owned and operated by Jim Hruska and his family since 1972.

For the rest of its journey, the Blue Earth River is most easily fished from a canoe or small johnboat. However, as it approaches Mankato, the Le Sueur River adds to the flow and this convergence is definitely worth a look. The gravel and rock found in this area is very appealing to spawning walleyes. A few miles north, in Mankato's Sibley Park, the Blue Earth River comes to an end when it enters the Minnesota River.

WATONWAN RIVER
The Watonwan River begins in Cottonwood County, near the city of Jeffers. Stocked with more than two thousand walleye yearlings in 2006, the river also benefits from being a main tributary of the Blue Earth River. The upstream portion of this stream is small, and its channel is largely dictated by agricultural practices.

The river doesn't truly take shape until following the introduction of a south and north fork, near the cities of Madelia and La Salle, in Watonwan County. From there, the river moves eastward into Blue Earth County, southwest of the city of Lake Crystal. The Watonwan Stop is located near this point, along County Highway 20.

In addition to plenty of room for shoreline angling, this park offers canoe and small boat access to the water. As the river approaches U.S. Highway 169, it begins to cut a path through rocky terrain, with bluffs beginning to rise along its banks. The river and highway cross paths at the town of Garden City. A long stretch of the river is open to the public within the Blue Earth County fairgrounds, on the east edge of town. Canoe and small boat access is available at this location, and on the west side of U.S. Highway 169.

After moving a short distance east, the Watonwan River runs through a series of rapids before dumping into the Blue Earth River eight miles southwest of Mankato.

The walleyes within the Watonwan River are most active in the spring and will be primarily located within the Blue Earth County portion of its 110-mile route. The largest will be congregated near the mouth, downstream of Garden City. This river often becomes shallow during the summer months, but walleyes can be taken again in the fall if water levels are sufficient.

When asked about the Watonwan River, Hruska remarked that the bite was extremely poor in the fall of 2009 but that he expected the walleyes to return in the spring.

For more information regarding both the Watonwan River and Blue Earth River, contact the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 657-4733, or Jim Hruska at the Rapidan Dam Store, (507) 546-9997.

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