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Ahhhh, an ice-free Minnesota fishing opener

By Sam Cook / Duluth News Tribune

KE LAKE, Minn. -- Bob Horn stood before the minnow tanks at Fisherman's Corner in Pike Lake on Thursday morning. He had a list in his hand.

"I'll take two dozen rainbows and two dozen crappies," said Horn, of Duluth.

He was talking minnows, of course. He was headed up to Britt on Thursday to get ready for Saturday's Minnesota fishing opener.

"I fish for northerns," Horn said. "I like the fight. There are some big ones up there."

Horn will be among the estimated half-million anglers who are expected to be on or near the water for this opener. Unlike the past two years, lakes have been ice-free for a few weeks and walleyes are expected to be over their post-spawn funk and ready to munch. The fishing season officially opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

"I know we have some low-water issues this year, but it's a lot better than having ice-cover issues," said John Chalstrom of Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle north of Duluth. "Last year the ice went out about two days before the opener, and the year before it went out two or three days after the opener."

With minimal snowmelt and little rain lately, water levels are down, especially on reservoir lakes near Duluth. Scott VanValkenburg, who owns Fisherman's Corner, sees that as a good thing.

"To me, low water means the fish are going to be congregated," VanValkenburg said. "I'm going to do a lot of shore fishing opening weekend. The shore fishing should be good. On Island Lake, you can walk anywhere, out in the lake. You're not stuck right by the bridge. you can walk down the shore. People can spread around."

It is legal, said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Kipp Duncan of Duluth, to walk the sandy areas below the normal high-water line on those lakes. But it is not legal to travel those exposed shorelines with motor vehicles, he said.

Boaters will have to exercise caution -- or in some cases perhaps use smaller boats -- to put in at boat launches where water levels are low.

"Water levels are still down," said Joe Russell, DNR area parks and trails supervisor. "Island (Lake) and Boulder (Lake) are between 6 and 8 feet low. Fish Lake, I heard, is better. The accesses on the St. Louis River are ready to go, but boaters should use caution launching and retrieving their boats."

Fishing optimism

Walleyes typically don't feed aggressively for about 10 days after they finish spawning, but that period may have already passed this year.

"I talked to one of the guys up by the falls (where walleyes spawn) on Island Lake," VanValkenburg said. "He said they've been done for two weeks. It should be gangbusters."

Chalstrom has heard similar reports.

"I do believe nature is right on track this year," he said.

That apparently has more anglers buying fishing licenses. Sales of Minnesota fishing licenses are outstripping last year's by a long shot and are running ahead of the past several years, according to the DNR. Sales through the weekend before opener were at 315,252, up from about 237,000 last year and about 152,000 in 2013. The last time license sales were this high was 2007.

Governor is ready

The communities of Tower and Cook are scurrying in preparation for the Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener on Lake Vermilion this year. Members of the media from around the state will headquarter at Fortune Bay Resort Casino and get out on the water with local guides on Saturday.

Tim "Buck" Lescarbeau, a longtime Lake Vermilion guide from Tower, will have Gov. Mark Dayton and his party on board Saturday.

"I think it's going to be a deep-water bite, from 25 to 45 feet," Lescarbeau said from his boat out on the lake on Wednesday. "I thought we'd be seeing (water) temperatures of 58 to 62, but I've got 55 right now. It's been getting cool at night."

Younger walleyes often spend more time in deep water, where they feed on the larvae of last year's mayflies, Lescarbeau said.

The governor looks forward to these Governor's Openers, said Alyssa Ebel, spokeswoman for Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism agency.

"He loves to fish. He loves the opener," Ebel said. "He's definitely hoping to catch a good walleye this year."

That would put Dayton among lots of company. It's safe to say that most Minnesota's anglers would like to catch a good walleye this weekend.

Or, in Horn's case, a good northern pike.

The 2015 Minnesota fishing opener

When: Season opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday

What: Anglers can legally take walleyes, northern pike and lake trout, as well as bass in Northeastern Minnesota.

Weather: Early-morning lows on Saturday will range from 35 to 40, with highs Saturday from about 47 in Duluth to 59 near Cook under partly sunny skies. But it could be cool on the St. Louis River, with east winds forecast to gust up to 25 mph.

Invasive species reminder: Anglers must clean off aquatic plants, animals and mud from boats, motors and fishing gear, as well as drain lake or river water from motors, ballast tanks, livewells, bilges and bait buckets before leaving accesses.

Regulation changes: Anglers should check on regulation changes this year for walleyes on Lake Winnibigoshish, Upper Red Lake, Saganaga Lake, Sea Gull Lake and Mille Lacs Lake. Also, a new catch-and-release bass fishing season has been added outside of Northeastern Minnesota, and the muskie minimum size limit has been raised to 54 inches on most waters. Check fishing regulations for details.

The Gov: Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton will be fishing on Lake Vermilion during the 68th annual Governor’s Fishing Opener.

The state of fishing: Minnesota claims 1.5 million licensed anglers, and fishing contributes $2.4 billion to the state’s economy each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Minnesota ranks second in fishing participation (to Alaska) at 32 percent.

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