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Minnesota's Top Opening-Day Walleye Lakes

Minnesota's Top Opening-Day Walleye Lakes

You need to be flexible on the opener. Being on a lake with high walleye-catching potential will also boost your chances of success.

Eric Magnuson, Tim Lesmeister and Tom Brown were part of the group that fished on Lake of the Woods as part of the 2004 Governor's Fishing Opener event. The cold, windy and rainy weather before the opener made it a tough walleye bite.
Photo courtesy of Tim Lesmeister

The 2004 fishing opener was tough. The weather was cold and windy. The walleyes were playing hard to get, but we did catch fish, thanks to the determination of my fishing partner, Eric Magnuson.

Magnuson and I along with fishing buddy Tom Brown were part of the group that fished at Lake of the Woods as part of the Governor's Fishing Opener event. The consensus from the guides the evening before was that the heavy rains that swept through the area a few days before, on top of a bone-chilling cold front, was going to shut the fishing down. Fortunately, I discovered from previous outings with Magnuson that he can squeeze optimism out of any situation, and his positive attitude actually inspired some confidence in Brown and I -- until we took off from the dock that opening morning. It was cold, really cold.

Magnuson has a few other great qualities. He's a good fisherman and he doesn't mind working hard for fish. He's lucky. And he's not prone to follow the status quo. He does whatever it takes to catch fish. While all the guides were tying on heavy chain sinkers, bottom-bouncers and spinnered snells, Magnuson rigged a couple of rods with the Mepps weight-forward spinners that came in the bag of giveaways that was handed out to media and guides. I would venture to say we were likely the only ones on the lake with these rigged.

Another shift from the program that the guides were doing was that Magnuson wasn't using anchors. He had received information from reliable sources that the game plan should include dropping anchor and fishing near the boat, waiting for fish to come to you. Instead, Magnuson dropped his bow-mounted electric trolling motor and set up some strategic routes between the hundreds of boats anchored all around us. He was able to maintain a respectable distance from other boats and still put us onto walleyes.

Tipping his weight-forward spinner with a minnow, we weren't 15 minutes into the program when Magnuson was setting the hook. It wasn't a big fish, but it was a walleye. From this first-hand experience I can tell you that seeing a walleye, any walleye, in the situation we were in is a real confidence builder. I actually removed one of my thick gloves and started concentrating on fishing.

That paid off as I caught the next walleye and Magnuson hooked one right after that. Not many other boats were catching fish around us, with the exception of one boat that fortunately anchored right over some fish. As their net began to get used, it only took a few minutes before others hoping to cash in on their discovery surrounded them.


The truth is, fishing prowess alone couldn't ensure a successful fishing outing when conditions were as bad as we had them. The fact that we caught eight walleyes before leaving the scene at noon to attend the shore lunch -- and we missed another half-dozen bites -- is a testament to two things. You need to be on a lake that has high walleye-catching potential -- we were on Lake of the Woods -- and you need to do what it takes to generate bites. Too often anglers go to their tried-and-true tactic and stick with it whether it's working or not. Could be a live-bait rig, a slip-bobber, whatever. A good game plan consists of trying something for a while, and if it's not working, keep adjusting until you discover the right program. I can help you find a high-potential lake. You need to be willing to experiment until you achieve the right presentation to ensure success. Then even under the tough conditions we almost always find ourselves in on the opener, there will still be some walleyes tugging on the end of your line.


Cass County

Why is it that the best opening-day lakes always seem to be those that are shallow with little structure? Stony is one of those, and like many of the other great opening-day lakes, Stony has high numbers of fish.

Stony Lake is situated just northeast of Hackensack. It's an extremely clear lake, which makes it one of the tougher lakes to fish in the daytime hours. Get out there before the sun rises and you will be pleasantly surprised though.

While many anglers incorporate a snagless sinker with a short snell that they work over the sand and rubble in 8 to 15 feet of water, don't rule out casting a suspending crankbait up to the shoreline. (Cont'd)

You can drop your boat in at one minute after midnight and immediately lower the electric-trolling motor. Head northeast toward the narrows and cast to the shoreline. You'll find that with the suspending crankbaits you almost always set the hook when you're giving the lure a jerk. Those Stony Lake walleyes will just grab the bait, and you don't feel the bite until your giving the lure a snap.

For more information, call Swanson's Bait at (218) 675-6176 and visit their Web site at


Kanabec County

While Stony Lake is very clear and a good night-fishing option, Knife Lake straight north of Mora has murky water and is a great daytime option. Even when a lake has dingy water, the shallow nature of Knife Lake means you have to be in your stealth mode. Outboard motor noise and movement above the water will spook walleyes that are up on top of the structure or on a shallow breakline.

Rig two rods, one with a live-bait rig to work the 8- to 12-foot range and the other a casting rod with a crankbait to cast over and along the edge of the sunken islands and rockpiles.

There is milfoil in Knife, which does create a marginal weedline early in the season. The live-bait rig is a great option along this newly emerging cover.

The walleyes in Knife are very structure-oriented on opener, so make sure to work the inside turns, sunken islands and the saddles with a crankbait that dives deep enough to get into the fish. Long casts are an advantage on this lake.

If a cold front creates a tough bite, then the slip-bobber in the deeper water off the two big islands is a great option.

For more information, call Jerry's Bait at (320) 679-2151.


St. Louis County

Timing is everything when it comes to the lakes in the northwoods. If there is a late spring and the ice goe

s out late, you can find the walleyes still in the spawning mode and tough to catch. Early ice-out can raise water temperatures rapidly in the shallower lakes, and the walleyes will be in the late transition stage and much easier to catch. Should that be the case, then you can't beat Wild Rice Lake north of Duluth.

Wild Rice is over 2,000 acres but you will be hard pressed to find water over 10 feet deep. Since there's no structure to relate to, the walleyes -- and there are plenty in this lake -- will school up and search out schools of forage. It's impossible to locate these pods of fish on the sonar, so fishing with a technique that allows you to cover some water is your best option. On Wild Rice, this will be a 1/2-ounce bottom-bouncer and spinner rig, or a shallow-diving crankbait trolled straight behind the boat on a long line.

For more information, call Chalstrom Bait at (218) 726-0094.


Kandiyohi County

Big Kandiyohi Lake south of Willmar is generating some buzz when it comes to the success early-season walleye anglers are having there. It's a top option for opening day due to the lake's characteristics. Big Kandiyohi is shallow, so it warms up quickly, the water is murky, which is always a benefit to anglers, and there are a lot of walleyes swimming in the lake.

With little structure to key on, anglers must, once again, cover water. Trolling crankbaits and spinners in the 10- to 15-foot range will eventually locate a school of fish. Then it's time to start casting to the spot or grab a slip-bobber rig, drop anchor and work that pod of concentrated walleyes.

Big Kandiyohi is popular on opener, so if you find some fish don't get high anxiety when some boats slide up to the spot to take advantage of your good fortune. There should be plenty of walleyes to go around.

For more information, call J's Bait at (320) 222-2248.


Wright County

On Waverly Lake on the opener, the weedline is key. The lake is not quite 500 acres in size but there is a nice concentration of walleyes there, which makes it a favorite on the opener. The weedline is just beginning to take shape with some old Eurasian milfoil matted to the bottom and some newly emerging growth working its way through. Anglers will find much of the better walleye fishing in 10 to 14 feet of water.

Walleyes can be anywhere on this edge so it's a matter of slowly pulling a live-bait rig with a minnow or leech right on the outside of the vegetation where you don't get hung up. That's a relative statement because whenever you're fishing near vegetation you're going to occasionally get stuck in some. The trick here is to stay close enough to keep your bait in the zone, but far enough out so you aren't constantly hung up. It doesn't take long to find the right depth and master this presentation.

For more information, call All Season Sports at (763) 972-3112.


Rice County

Cannon Lake just west of Faribault is over 1,500 acres, but for some reason there are just a few spots on the lake that tend to concentrate anglers on the opener. These hotspots are sunken islands in the north part of the lake that consist of some rubble and sand. Anglers out on the opener tend to hover over these locations and jig or slowly drag live-bait rigs over the top and around the edges. The problem here is that all that boat traffic tends to shut these spots down by midmorning.

When a spot goes cold in a lake as productive as Cannon, that doesn't mean the fish have quit biting. They more likely moved. This is a good time to tie on a shallow-running crankbait and start trolling slowly along in the 8- to 10-foot range. That's not hard to do on Cannon because that's how deep most of the lake is.

For more information, call Nagel's Bait at (507) 334-8341.


Washington County

White Bear Lake has some deeper water and the clarity is good. So why does this lake tend to be a good option on the opener?

It could be because there are high numbers of walleyes in the lake and they tend to favor weedlines in the early spring. White Bear has a well-defined weedline meandering around a rock/rubble/sand bottom. If the ice goes out early and the water has warmed sufficiently, you can't beat a live-bait rig in 18 feet of water on any muck/sand transition line where there is some newly emerging vegetation.

White Bear Lake is also loaded with sunken islands and inside turns. These spots are best when the walleyes are well out of the spawn and into their early-summer patterns. If the walleyes are on the midlake structure, you can bet some of these fish will be big.

For more information, call Little Bear Bait at (651) 653-1326.


Morrison County

Just south of Motley there are three gorgeous lakes that make up the bulk of the quality fishing holes in Morrison County, which just goes to prove that quality can often offset quantity. Of the three lakes, Alexander is going to be a good bet on the opener.

Lake Alexander is not exceptionally deep overall but the water clarity is good and the lake has a reputation for fishing better at night when it comes to walleyes. Keep this in mind when planning your opening trip to this lake. Start early when it's still dark.

There's a lot of midlake structure on Alexander, and this will be productive if the walleyes have finished their post-spawn transition. If the water is still cold, don't rule out the bulrush beds or the shallow sand shoreline sandflats.

A live-bait rig is a great presentation on the midlake structure. On the shallow sand you can't beat a spinner on a 1/2-ounce bottom-bouncer. If you're going to attack the bulrushes, do it with a slip-bobber and a leech. This technique has been gaining popularity in a rapid fashion since anglers discovered how often the walleyes use this cover right after the spawn.

For more information, call Charlie Brown Bait at (218) 352-6112.


St. Louis County

Lake Vermilion is where I will be on opening day in 2005. That's where the Governor's Fishing Opener is this year. It's not a lake that I might choose to be on during the opening weekend, but I can tell you that Vermilion is a phenomenal walleye, bass and muskie lake from early June through October.

Since I will be fishing Vermilion on the opener -- and yes, I will be in the boat with Magnuson again -- we'll need to come up with some way to put some walleyes in the boat. Here's my plan.

Magnuson will want to get out on the water very early. He's always chomping on the bit to wet a line. I'll go along with this since I know that opening weekend on Vermilion will likely favor a night bite.

We'll be chasing the small males on the spawning flats.

This means slowly backtrolling a live-bait rig and a leech on the sand in 8 to 10 feet looking for those 1 1/2-pounders that are spread out all over.

If we don't find walleyes there, then there are plenty of reefs, sunken islands, dropoffs and rockpiles where we can drag a spinner rig on a bottom-bouncer in 12 to 16 feet of water. And if it really gets tough I'll bet that Magnuson will be digging in his bag of goodies for some obscure lure setup that will miraculously produce bites when no one else can figure out the program. Didn't I mention earlier that it's not only a good idea to be on a lake that is loaded with walleyes, but it also pays to be with someone who has a great attitude and luck on their side.

For more information on Lake Vermilion, visit

The opener in Minnesota is as much about traditions as it is about catching fish. Big groups of anglers head to their cabins and fill resorts, and catching fish is secondary to the fun that is generated when a there's a big gathering of friends and family. The opener for many is the beginning of a long and hopefully productive season where not every outing will be fruitful in the catching sense. But it is the start of another period in Minnesota where we who live here realize why we love it so. Beautiful summer weather, bountiful lakes and rivers, and with some luck, the time to enjoy it all.

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