Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ready, set, fish!

Mother Nature sends ice packing just in time for opener

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/9/18

REGIONAL— There will be open water when anglers head out for the start of the fishing season on Saturday. Temperatures that topped 80 degrees on Monday took care of stubborn ice that had threatened …

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Ready, set, fish!

Mother Nature sends ice packing just in time for opener


REGIONAL— There will be open water when anglers head out for the start of the fishing season on Saturday. Temperatures that topped 80 degrees on Monday took care of stubborn ice that had threatened to put a damper on the season opener on some area lakes.

While the ice melted away, the later-than-usual ice-out should still prompt anglers to tailor their techniques for the conditions.

“It’s a given that there will be a lot of fish in the shallow, dark water bays,” said Rob Bryers, of RB’s Guide Service on Lake Vermilion. On Vermilion, Bryers expects Pike and Black Bays to hold plenty of walleye and attract large numbers of anglers.

If you prefer to stay away from the madding crowd, “you could try deeper holes wherever you are,” said Bryers. “Those deep holes, especially in the bays, will hold a lot of male fish that have already spawned,” he said.

Those male fish will also likely be working the shallows, particularly in the evening, so Bryers reminded anglers that some of the best early season fishing is likely to be found right off the dock.

With the late ice-out and still-chilly water temperatures, the guides agree that fishing near current is always a good bet. “If the DNR doesn’t close some of these places, fishing in the current should be lights out,” said Rob Nelson, who runs the Ely Fishing Guide Company. “This year, more than usual, the bite will be tied to the current,” Nelson added.

As for presentation, Nelson said he likes to rely on the old standby, jig and minnow, this time of year. If that isn’t working, area guides will tell you to shift to a lindy rig, or even troll with crank baits in shallower water.

Nelson said he and his stable of guides will be starting clients out on the White Iron chain and on Basswood, assuming there’s sufficient open water. And Nelson never forgets about Birch Lake, which he said has been a steady producer as well for his clients and is well-known as a strong early-season contender.

Crane Lake, up at the border, lost its ice cover on May 7, and that means fishing will get underway in earnest on Saturday. Longtime Crane Lake guide Butch Eggen agreed that current is key this time of year and he expects bumper-to-bumper boats working the current at the mouth of the Vermilion River. He also expects plenty of action at the mouth of the Echo River, on Echo Lake, another well-known early season honey hole. Eggen took Jesse Ventura there for the 2000 Governor’s Opener, and they set the record for the most fish caught by a governor during the annual event.

As for presentation, Eggen swears by the jig and minnow this time of year. “I tell people that any color jig will work as long as its chartreuse,” he quipped. Eggen’s best advice: Take it slow. “The fish are lethargic from breeding,” said Eggen. “I’m always telling people to slow their jigging down. You can’t be real aggressive.”

Wherever anglers wind up on any of the larger area lakes, they’re likely to find some action with the right methods. Vermilion, in particular, remains in a multi-year sweet spot, with huge numbers of walleye in the 14-16-inch range, that are just perfect for the frying pan. The latest DNR test netting tallied an average of 16 walleye per lift, significantly above the lake’s already-robust long-term average of 14. As of last fall’s survey, the most common size was a 15-incher, which has likely grown to at least a 16-incher by now. “That’s the biggest thing we have going for us is a healthy fishery,” said Bryers. “We have such good numbers of walleye.”

The special protective slot limit on Lake Vermilion walleye gets much of the credit for the current status of the fishery, and anglers are going to be reaping additional rewards again this year with the narrower 20-26-inch slot. That will mean anglers can keep walleye up to 19 inches, and they’ll also be able to select from the ever-growing number of trophy walleye, over 26 inches, found in the lake.

Nelson said the 17-26-inch protective slot on the White Iron chain is showing promise there as well. “We’re very happy with the results of the slot limit,” he said.

Northern pike

While the focus often remains on walleye for the opener, Bryers said the pike fishing continues to improve on Vermilion and can add a lot to a day of fishing, particularly in the shallower bays this time of year. While anglers sometime dismiss the eating quality of northern pike in more southerly waters, few anglers will turn up their nose at a northern from a cold-water lake in the Arrowhead, which can rival any walleye for good eating.

A 24-36-inch protective slot on Vermilion doesn’t appear to have increased numbers of northern pike, according to the DNR’s Tower area large lake specialist Matt Hennen, but it has increased the average size of pike in the lake, which was part of the objective.

That’s consistent with the intent of new statewide northern pike zones, which are designed to reduce the number of small northerns in north-central parts of the state, while maintaining a healthy population of larger pike in northeastern Minnesota.

In the Ely area, Nelson said he’s encouraged by the new rules for northerns. “I’m very excited by it,” he said.


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