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A 6.5-pound walleye is released May 9, 2009, on Crane Lake, northeast of Orr, Minnesota, near the Canadian border. Fishing was pretty good on the border lake, though finding legal keeper-sized walleyes, the protective slot begins at 17 inches and runs through 28 inches on Crane Lake, was challenging. (Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

That annual rite of spring -- the walleye opener -- gets underway Saturday morning

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The opening day of Minnesota's walleye season isn't a state holiday, but in the minds of many people, the annual opener is one of the biggest events of the year.

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Even North Dakota anglers, who live in a state where fishing season is open year-round, make the eastward trek to participate in this great Minnesota tradition. Minnesota sells more than 1 million fishing licenses annually, and a high percentage of them will be on the water for Saturday's fishing opener.

The action officially gets underway at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

As in most years, the turnout will depend on the weather for all but the most diehard anglers, who will wet a line Saturday regardless of the conditions. And right now, at least, there's reason for optimism for anglers who prefer warm, sunny fishing openers: The forecast across northern Minnesota is calling for sun and a high temperature in the low 60s.

That's not bad.

Fishing prognosticators say walleyes are done spawning pretty much everywhere across the state and should be ready to rumble Saturday morning. Even if the walleyes are tight-lipped, though, the walleye opener is as much about tradition and getting together with family and friends as it is about putting fish on the stringer.

A few fish for the frying pan will be a bonus.

As the countdown to opening day begins, here are some fishy facts on walleyes and other species that swim in Minnesota waters from the Department of Natural Resources.

Get those hooks sharp -- it's almost here!

Fish and fishing

• Minnesota ranks first nationally in the sale of fishing licenses per capita, selling more than 1.37 million licenses in 2009, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available.

• Sport fishing in Minnesota accounts for $1.58 billion in annual expenditures.

• The state's lakes and rivers hold 158 fish species.

• Minnesota has 3.8 million acres of fishing waters, including 5,493 fishable lakes, 15,000 miles of cold- and warm-water streams and 1,900 miles of trout streams.

• The DNR stocks 250 million walleye fry, 2.5 million walleye fingerlings, 50,000 yearling walleyes and 30,000 adult walleyes annually.

• The DNR stocks 1.2 million northern pike, including fry, fingerlings and adults.

• Also stocked annually are 30,000 muskie fingerlings, 7,500 largemouth bass fingerlings and adults, 100,000 channel catfish fingerlings and yearlings and 2.3 million fingerling and yearling trout.

• While most anglers will set their sights on walleyes for the opener, they shouldn't overlook northern pike, which also become fair game Saturday. Abundant and aggressive, northern pike have saved many a fishing trip.

• Minnesota's state record walleye, which came from the Seagull River in Cook County on May 13, 1979, weighed 17.8 pounds and measured 35.8 inches.

• The northern pike record is even older, coming almost 50 years to the day earlier. The state record pike weighed 45 pounds, 12 ounces and came from Basswood Lake in Lake County on May 16, 1929.

Harvest

• Panfish are the most caught fish in Minnesota, followed by walleyes and northern pike.

• Anglers keep 4.6 million pounds of walleyes, 4.6 million pounds of northern pike and 9.7 million pounds of panfish annually.

• Commercial fishing accounts for an annual harvest of 3.5 million pounds of fish of various species.

Where to fish

According to DNR fisheries managers, large lakes such as Lake of the Woods, Upper Red Lake and Leech Lake all should be good bets for Saturday's opener. Midsize lakes such as Lake Bemidji and Otter Tail Lake also hold strong walleye populations. Closer to East Grand Forks, don't overlook the Red Lake River, Maple Lake or Lake Bronson, either.

Governor's opener

Lake Waconia, about 45 minutes west of downtown Minneapolis, is the site of this year's Governor's Fishing Opener. Gov. Mark Dayton will test the waters with fishing guide Travis Frank, while Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon will fish with Waconia fishing guide Matt Peters.

According to the DNR, 3,000-acre Lake Waconia is one of the largest lakes in the seven-county metro area, with a walleye abundance 1½ to 2 times higher than Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake and Forest Lake.

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