Here's a close look at where the best Minnesota walleye fishing will be on opening day (May 12) and beyond.
By Joe Albert
For many of Minnesota's fishermen, the walleye-fishing opener is right up there with Christmas, the Fourth of July and other holidays when it comes to importance.
Anglers circle the date well in advance of the actual opener — the season commences May 12 this year — and it takes a serious malady or unfortunate occurrence for them to miss opening day.
The reality, however, is that opening day is just the first day in a long season, and often as not fishing only improves in the days and weeks after the season opens. The fish get farther and farther away from the rigors and stress of spawning, the food chain takes more shape, and the fish feed heavily as the water warms and the vegetation greens.
By all indications, 2018 should be another fantastic year for walleye fishing in Minnesota. Some of the state's largest and most productive walleye factories — think of places such as Lake of the Woods, Upper Red and Leech — once again will afford anglers great fishing opportunities.
But one of the best parts about being a walleye fisherman in the Gopher State is the wide range of opportunities to chase Ol' Marble Eyes. There are more than 5,400 lakes with fish populations in the state, and about 1,700 of them have fishable populations of walleyes. That's both as a result of natural reproduction and stocking. That means anglers are never far away from walleye water, making it easy to load up the boat, drive a few miles and try another lake if their first choice isn't producing.
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But as we approach the 2018 season, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also reminds anglers of the limitations of stocking walleyes, noting that perhaps 5 percent of the fish anglers catch are raised in hatcheries.
"Over the years, the mixture of ever-increasing walleye mania and the lure of tourism bucks has produced an over-reliance on stocking," according to the Minnesota DNR. "As a result of this emphasis on hatchery production, many anglers wrongly believed that stocking was a panacea for poor fishing, that any lake could be a walleye lake, and that the walleyes could not thrive without artificial propagation. None of that is true.
"Simply put, stocking a lot of small fish does not guarantee catching a lot of big fish. Furthermore, native Minnesota walleye have flourished since the Ice Age without our help. But having relied on the stocking program for several decades, the DNR has found it difficult to convince anglers of other effective management tools. Still, the effect on the state's total fishery is limited."
That being said, Minnesota has a great number of lakes where natural reproduction carries the day, and where stocking can fill in the gaps to create fantastic fisheries. With the 2018 season upon us, let's take a look at some of Minnesota's fantastic walleye fisheries and explore some of the best opportunities to catch walleyes throughout the state.
There are a number of good options in the state's Arrowhead region, according to Chris Kavanaugh, the DNR regional fisheries manager who is based in Grand Rapids. And anglers who like to catch eating-sized walleyes likely will be pleased by what's available in the northeast.
"In a lot of places, we are still sitting on a strong 2013 walleye year-class," Kavanaugh said. "Those are going to be pretty decent-sized fish coming into the 2018 fishing season." In other bodies of water, the 2012 year-class is carrying the day. Fish from those two classes likely will be in the range of about 15 to 18 inches in length.
"We're also looking at a good 2015 year-class at Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake and Lake Vermilion," he said. "Some of those fish might be running a little smaller to start the season, but by mid- to late summer, anglers will probably be starting to see some harvestable-sized fish."
Kavanaugh also suggests anglers check out Lake County's Basswood Lake, a 26,000-acre behemoth with above-average walleye abundance. The 39,000-acre Vermilion, which is in St. Louis County, is always a good choice and, according to the DNR, its 2016 gill-net surveys produced a walleye catch rate of 14 fish per net, which is the lake's historic average.
"Average length of walleyes has increased since the implementation of the protected slot (fish between 20 and 26 inches must be released)," according to the DNR.
The catch rate of 13- to 20-inch walleyes is slightly above the historic median, suggesting fish of preferred harvest sizes are available. Additionally, the number of fish 19 inches and larger continues to be above historic averages."
Rainy Lake, along the Canadian border, for the past nearly two decades has boasted of a walleye gill-net catch rate that's been "at historically high levels," according to the DNR.
Farther south, an often-overlooked body of water for walleyes is the St. Louis River estuary outside of Duluth. The water is turbid and it may not look like traditional walleye water, but it can produce some great fishing, Kavanaugh said.
Some of Minnesota's most well-known and productive bodies of water are in northwestern Minnesota. The highlight here is the massive Lake of the Woods, which holds good populations of walleyes and sauger. Surveys show an abundance of small walleyes (7 to 12 inches) as well as a good representation of fish from 13 to 18 inches in length.
"The 2013 and 2014 year-classes are both strong, and the 2015 and 2016 year-classes are predicted to be of average strength," according to the DNR. "When this is combined with only a single weak year-class (2008) in the past 10 years, the result is an abundant walleye population."
South of Lake of the Woods is Upper Red Lake, which has supported a booming walleye fishery since re-opening in 2006 following a collapse in the decade before. In the early years after it reopened, regulations on Upper Red were conservative, but the DNR has scaled them back as the walleye population there has flourished. Heading into last year's ice-fishing season, in fact, the DNR maintained a four-fish bag limit with one walleye over 17 inches.
"The new harvest plan recommends a more aggressive approach when spawning stock is in surplus, as it currently is," Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji, said last November. "The extra fish in the daily bag this winter is expected to increase winter harvest, and allowing one fish over 17 inches meets our harvest plan objectives by spreading harvest over a wide range of sizes and removing some of the surplus spawning stock."
Lakes such as Bemidji, Blackduck, Cass and Plantagenet also are worth a look by anglers who want to target lakes with healthy walleye populations.
This part of the state is home to some of the state's best walleye lakes, including Leech and Winnibigoshish. The walleye catch rate in the former has been high for several years running, while catch rates have been lower in Winnibigoshish. Still, there's excellent walleye fishing to be had in the 56,000-acre lake.
There also are a number of excellent walleye options in the Glenwood area, which includes the deep and cold lakes that most people think of when they think walleyes, but also the shallow prairie lakes that can be particularly productive early in the season. One lake that's often overlooked is Pelican Lake near Ashby, said Dean Beck, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Glenwood. Other top performers are Big Chippewa, Miltona, Minnewaska and Reno.
"They're solid," Beck said. "We haven't had any real strong year-classes — at least as evidenced by our fall electrofishing — other than in Pelican Lake. But these lakes support natural recruitment, plus they get stocked, so they will continue to perform."
And given a lack of winterkill, it's likely the area's small prairie pothole-type lakes will provide good walleye fishing in 2018, too. Beck recommends anglers target such waters early in the season, given they warm up faster than the deep lakes.
"You can pretty much bank on the fact that the shallow prairie lakes that warm up earlier (will provide better fishing early in the season) than some of the bigger, deep lakes that stay cold longer," Beck said. "In some of those lakes, the good fishing doesn't really pick up until June."
Deep, clear and cold isn't what anglers will find in the southern part of the state. But that doesn't mean they won't find excellent walleye fishing. Lake Sarah is perhaps the region's premier walleye lake, with a walleye population that's sustained through natural reproduction. Other strong options are Benton, Chetek and Loon, according to Ryan Doorenbos, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Windom. He also points anglers to East Stay Lake, which currently supports a strong walleye population. During surveys in 2016, the walleye catch rate was 43 fish per gill net, which was the second-highest rate ever observed on the lake. The expected range of catch rates for similar lakes is one to about seven walleyes per gill net, according to the DNR.
Early in the season, many anglers pull live-bait rigs around lakes in southern Minnesota. As the water warms, many of them switch to more aggressive presentations in an effort to generate strikes. In recent years, anglers in increasing numbers have been making use of planer boards to get their lures away from the boat.
One tip from Doorenbos? Don't worry if you have trouble catching fish one day. They very well may bite the next day. "We have such a strong forage base down in our area — the lakes are very productive — so you get those days where you are fishing and not catching anything," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean the fish aren't there. It's often a byproduct of the fact we have such a strong forage base. The fish have everything they need right in front of their face most of the time. So you can have a bad day on a particular lake, and then the next day will be night-and-day different."