Minnesotans have a holiday that’s not on the calendar for the rest of the country. It is a day that always falls in the middle of May, and it is known as “The Opener.” Over 1 million anglers celebrate this self-imposed holiday by taking to one of the thousands of lakes in the state to signify the beginning of the walleye and northern pike fishing season.
The Opener is a tradition that has been going on for years, a celebration that requires more than just a few hours of idly dunking night crawlers. In fact, for many anglers the opener begins well before the first boat is launched.
Chris Kuduk has been a guide on Lake Mille Lacs for 30 years. He now guides from his personal boat but for years captained a party boat on the western shores of this popular walleye fishery. His phone begins ringing eight to 10 days before the opener with calls from anglers with high levels of anticipation gathering tips on where to go and how to catch walleyes when the big day arrives.
“The Opener can require some guessing because we haven’t been able to fish for walleyes in a long time,” said Kuduk. “Putting together a game plan means looking at the water temperature, the weather forecast, where the walleyes are in the post-spawn period and if the lake where they’re fishing gets pressured heavily or not.”
Of course, Kuduk is on Mille Lacs on The Opener, where the fishing pressure is high and the harvest is tightly regulated.
“Wind is a big factor on Mille Lacs,” said Kuduk. “It’s tough to control the boat when it is windy. A spring cold front will also slow the fishing, and it always seems like there’s a major weather system passing through on the eve of The Opener.”
Kuduk’s remedy for those tough opening day conditions is to use an anchor.
“Most anglers fish too fast on opening day,” he noted. “They should keep in mind that the big walleyes are recuperating from the spawn, the water is still cold, and those big drops in the barometer simply slow them down.
“My game plan on opening day is to set up with an anchor right on top of a shallow rockpile and cast a slip-bobber rig. The wind will drift the bait right over the rocks, and even when the fish are in a negative mood, there will be some hungry ones around,” Kuduk said.
One trick that Kuduk uses on his bobber rigs is in the jig.
“I tie on a 1/32-ounce jig and add a split shot about 18 inches above that,” Kuduk said. “I don’t use jumbo leeches either. The panfish leech is too small and the jumbo is too big. I’ve found that an average-sized leech works best.”
Kuduk also recommends being on the water during the mid-day period.
“On opening day, those walleyes will bite right in the middle of the day,” he said. “We’re conditioned to fish for walleyes during the low-light periods in the morning and evening, but early-season walleyes will bite all day, so take your lunch with you and fish all day. That way you won’t miss the bite if it happens at noon when you’ve gone in to eat some lunch and take a nap.”
With all this in mind, here is a look at some of the best lakes in this “Land of 10,000 Lakes” to be on opening day:
Mille Lacs-Aitkin Counties
“Book a resort and put your boat in on Friday,” recommends Kuduk. “The boat landings on this lake get busy from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m.”
If you want to follow the crowds, Kuduk advises heading for the north shore to fish the sand flats.
“There will be a big group on the sand back-trolling Lindy Rigs in 5 to 20 feet of water,” he said. “The trick for this technique is to let out a lot of line. There will be a lot of walleyes on the sand, but they move when you pass over them with the boat. By letting out a lot of line and trolling in an S-pattern, you’ll get the bait into a lot of fish.”
Boats will also stack up on the shallow rocks, according to Kuduk.
“Anderson’s Reef, Indian Point, and the water between Seguchie and Browns Point are all rockpiles that get hit hard on the opener,” said Kuduk. “You can’t pull a Lindy Rig through these rocks, so you might as well anchor up and toss out a bobber. There are lots of walleyes on the shallow rocks and also on the sand flats, and you might even find a big fish or two, but if you want some huge walleyes, you can always try the flats.”
The mud flats that Kuduk refers to are spread out over the north-central and northwest portions of the lake. Anglers work the flats in droves during the summer months, but from the opener until the first of June, an angler can go a long time between bites.
“When you do get a bite, it’s probably a big fish,” said Kuduk. “The big females move out to the mud when they’re done spawning, so if you want a big fish, pull some leeches on a Lindy Rig over the mud.”
To contact Kuduk, call (320) 630-1761.
For information on the resorts around Mille Lacs, check out www.millelacs.com.
Every year it seems that the Winnibigoshish walleye fishing gets better. About 10 years ago, the lake had a banner opener and has duplicated or bested that opener ever since.
“Between the shoreline restoration that was done some years ago and the slot limits, and anglers are just getting smarter about catch-and-release, the walleye fishery on this lake has never been better, ” said long-time Winnie guide Ron Hunter,
Of course, Hunter has about 3,000 GPS waypoints in that big Lowrance unit that’s attached to his dash.
“Those are the spots on the spots on the spots,” he joked. “It helps to have a lot of experience on the lake, but first-timers can do well too.”
Hunter recommends fishing the shallow points with Roach Rigs or jigs tipped with shiners, minnows or leeches. “Try Ravens Point and Stony Point, and Tamarack Point is another good one,” he said. “Start shallow and work deeper and you should find walleyes on one of them.”
There will be plenty of anglers in the Cutfoot Sioux lakes that are on the northeast corner of Winnie. “The Cutfoot is real popular on the opener,” said Hunter. “There will be lots of walleyes there, but lots of fishermen, too. If it’s windy and the mai
n lake is churning, the Cutfoot lakes are a great option. If Winnie just has a nice walleye chop going, however, I’ll be on the points.”
To contact Hunter, check out his Web site at www.captainronwalleye.com.
Back in the late ’90s and for a few years after the new millennium, if an angler told you they were going to Leech Lake to fish for walleyes, you would offer a prayer and loan them your favorite good-luck charm. Walleye numbers hit rock bottom in this lake due to a combination of factors that have been corrected, and now Leech Lake has made one of the fastest comebacks imaginable.
Tom Neustrom, an experienced guide who is very active in lake conservation issues, said that the people who needed to listen did so and what needed to be done was done. There are still concerns, but overall, the lake has a solid population of walleyes.
A few years ago, the governor held the annual fishing opener weekend on Leech Lake and it was dubbed a huge success. According to Neustrom, the openers over the past couple of years have mirrored the success of the governor’s event.
“Leech has always been a good place to open the season when the walleyes were there,” he said. “Now that they’re back, opening day should produce if you’re in the right pace.”
Being in the right place means working the big rock reefs along the shoreline.
“Stony Point, Pine Point and Rogers Point are all structural elements where opening day anglers should find walleyes,” said Neustrom. “There are lots more like them on Leech Lake. Tie on a Roach Rig, get yourself some minnows and leeches and pull them over the rocks.”
For more information, check out Neustrom’s Web page at www.mnfishing connections.com.
LAKE OF THE WOODS
Lake Of The Woods County
Nick Painovich is the owner of Zipple Bay Resort on Lake of the Woods. He’ll just be getting back in shape by stretching his muscles fighting big northern pike — the pike season is open year ’round on Lake of the Woods. But on the opener, it is all about walleyes.
“Walleye is king in Minnesota,” said Painovich, “so once the walleye season begins, we’re busy and it doesn’t slow down except for a few weeks before ice-up and when the season closes again.
Painovich said the walleye fishing on the opener is historically good, and even when the weather is not cooperating, the fishing can still be productive.
“There are so many walleyes in this lake,” he said, “you are sure to find some that are willing to bite.”
Captain “Flip” Phillippe guides out of Sportsman’s Lodge and he agrees, noting that on the opener he might not even have to leave the Rainy River.
“There are always lots of fish in the river on the opener,” said Phillippe. “If the wind is howling, we can stay on the Rainy and catch walleyes, but people also like going through The Gap and into the big lake to fish. It’s certainly an experience.”
For more information, check out www.zippelbayresort.com or visit www.sportsmanslodgelow.com.
It’s time we left the North Country and headed south where the prairie potholes tend to open with a bang.
At 750 acres, Okabena doesn’t fit the lake mass criteria of some of the big walleye factories profiled above, but when it comes to its walleye population, Okabena has some impressive numbers.
Sitting right on the edge of the town of Worthington, Lake Okabena will have plenty of company from local anglers, but few come from far away because they don’t know how to fish a lake that doesn’t have much structure.
“Anglers actually have a lot of options when it comes to techniques on featureless lakes,” said Mark Courts, a champion tournament walleye angler. “They just don’t know where to look for fish.”
Courts won the 2008 Professional Walleye Trail championship and has performed well during his career as a professional angler because he knows how to find fish under all conditions.
He understands that each body of water is unique and must be judged by its own characteristics.
“On lakes like Okabena, there is a temptation to follow the crowds, but it’s not hard to find your own fish because there are plenty to go around,” said Courts. “First, I’ll drop my bow-mount trolling motor and start a slow drift along the edge of the point of the west side, then after I’ve caught all the fish I can off that spot, I’ll move over to the hole on the east side and work a live-bait rig around those contours.
“If there is a crowd of boats on a spot, I’ll figure they’re pushing the fish out away from them, so I’ll work a rig about 20 to 30 yards from the pile of boats watching my sonar to see if the fish are tight to the bottom or suspending. It’s amazing how many fish will suspend away from the crowds, yet you can easily catch them casting a crankbait,” Courts noted.
For more information, call Marv’s Bait Shop at (507) 372-2701.
ALBERT LEA LAKE
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been stocking millions of fry into Albert Lea Lake, and now they’re in the 18- to 22-inch range and ripe for the picking.
Guide Kuduk said that anglers should anchor where the channel from Fountain Lake enters Albert Lea Lake and sit there while fishing with a slip-bobber rig.
Courts said he would drift the necked-down areas and cast shiner-colored crankbaits. If that doesn’t work, go back through with a perch-colored, shad-shaped crankbait.
Other anglers may use a split-shot rig on a No. 2 Tru-Turn hook. About 18 inches up the line, pinch on a pea-sized split shot. Thread a 3- to 4-inch shiner or minnow on the hook and feed out about 60 feet of line and drift through with this rig.
For more information, check out www.albertleatourism.org.
WHITE BEAR LAKE
This is the lake the governor has chosen for this year’s opener event. White Bear Lake is better known for its great bass and muskie fishing, but there are plenty of walleyes to be found there.
White Bear Lake is a diverse lake with plenty of vegetation, but there is a good deal of rubble, rock and sand, too. Mid-lake structure is plentiful, but the smart walleye angler will strain all the shoreline-related points and flats before heading out to the middle of the lake.
A good game plan for the White Bear opener is to start shallow and work deep, looking not only for walleyes but for baitfish as well because
walleyes will hang close to a food source.
When the opener does finally dawn, be ready with a GPS full of spots and about 10 rods rigged with everything from a slip-bobber to jigging spoons. This is a good game plan no matter what lake you plan on fishing.
If the water clarity is good, try to get on the water at least once with an underwater camera to see where the walleyes are holding. This puts you in a good spot on the opener with a high chance of scoring.
For more information on White Bear Lake, call Hansen’s Little Bear Bait and Tackle at (651) 653-1326.
Many anglers save up their vacation days to be used on the opener. Most spend long hours in sporting goods stores stocking up on the latest, greatest lures and tools for walleye fishing.
For some, a trip to the cabin each year for the opener has been a lifelong tradition.
Minnesota’s walleye opener fits the criteria of a holiday, and all but Christmas may be relegated to just another day in the week. Join us on the water and find out for yourself!