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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota


Walleye numbers look strong, but take it slow with cold water temps

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/10/23

REGIONAL— Patience. That was the advice from most area fishing guides ahead of Saturday’s fishing opener. Not that there aren’t plenty of walleye out there, but as is typical of …

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Walleye numbers look strong, but take it slow with cold water temps


REGIONAL— Patience. That was the advice from most area fishing guides ahead of Saturday’s fishing opener. Not that there aren’t plenty of walleye out there, but as is typical of years with late ice-outs, they’ll be taking their time.
“It’s definitely going to be a cold-water bite,” said Cliff Wagenbach, a longtime Lake Vermilion guide. “But the fish will be willing to bite if you move slow.”
Wagenbach said he expects Pike Bay will be packed with anglers, and that the fish will be there in big numbers as well. He’ll be far from the madding crowd, however, working the mud flats out in Big Bay, in about 26-36 feet of water— and he expects plenty of action using a small minnow and lindy rig.
That is, of course, assuming the ice has cleared from Big Bay. As of the Timberjay’s Wednesday press time, large areas of ice still remained in several locations on the lake, including Big Bay. That ice was expected to clear within a day or so, almost certainly in time for opener.
That means Wagenbach and others who like to ply the deeper waters on opening day, likely won’t have the ice to blame if they don’t find fish.
That appears to be an unlikely outcome. While area guides each have their own favorite locations and methods, they all agree on one thing this year when it comes to Lake Vermilion— the fishing should be outstanding.
“It looks really good,” said longtime guide Rob Bryers. “And the age distribution is beautiful.”
A very strong 2018-year class continues to dominate Vermilion’s walleye fishery, according to last fall’s test netting by the Department of Natural Resources. That means “exceptionally high” numbers of walleye in the 16-20 inch range, according to Matt Hennen, the DNR’s large lake specialist for Vermilion. With a protected slot limit of 20-26 inches, anglers should be able to keep the bulk of fish in this size range.
“The walleye population is healthy, that’s for sure,” said Wagenbach. “And they’re just the size we like.”
That’s not just the usual hyperbole you might expect from a guide. With an average catch rate of 16.6 walleye per test net, Vermilion is going to be a standout among the state’s big walleye producing lakes. Several strong year classes in recent years have left the lake with a truly sizable walleye population that looks likely to stay strong for at least the next several years.
The fish may be plentiful out there in the lake, but the real question is how many wind up in your live well. Most experienced anglers in the area turn to a very basic and traditional approach in the early season. “To me, it’s basically a minnow and a jig,” said Dave Schaeffer, another longtime guide on Vermilion. “I always fish jig and minnow the first week. I start shallow and if I don’t find them right away, I head for deep water.” For Schaeffer, that’s between 25-30 feet of water.
Bryers agrees that jigs and minnows will be his go-to on opener, but he thinks some of the best fishing could come in the morning and evenings right off any good dock in the area. “Right before dark should be phenomenal,” he said.
Last winter’s deep early snow, which resulted in poor ice conditions, is another reason for optimism, said Wagenbach. “The fish got a break over the winter,” said Wagenbach, noting that the difficult conditions meant far fewer ice anglers ventured out than usual. “A lot of pressure was taken off the lake,” he said. “The fish got a break, which will be nice for us this summer.”
Bryers notes that it wasn’t just the winter that saw less pressure. He said overall lake traffic was down significantly last summer, a development he blames on high gas prices and the high water that extended well into the summer. Whatever the reason, said Bryers, it reduced fishing pressure considerably, and that should yield dividends for anglers this year.
Other waters
While Vermilion will undoubtedly attract the bulk of the anglers this weekend, other area lakes will be seeing plenty of action as well. Crane Lake, downstream from Vermilion, sports an impressive walleye population of its own. The most recent netting survey, conducted in 2016, showed an average of 10.17 walleye per net. Add in a smaller but still significant population of closely related sauger and you’ve got plenty of potential to make an angler smile.
Jerry Pohlman, resort operator and guide out of Nelson’s Resort, said he expects plenty of activity on Crane this weekend, with most of it focused in the usual early season hotspots with current. “Near the Echo River, the Vermilion River, and in the narrows, it’ll be wall-to-wall boats,” he said.
As for approach, he didn’t hesitate. “A jig and a minnow, work it slowly. Drag it, bounce it, let it settle. Take a slow and easy approach.”
In the Ely area, Rob Nelson of the Ely Fishing Guide Co., will be focusing his efforts in the current as well. “We’re either right in it, right in the rapids, or in the sandy flats just downstream,” he said. Nelson likes to start with a lindy rig and a bigger shiner, although he’ll switch to a jig and a rainbow if that isn’t working. Like a growing number of guides, he said he said he’s also using more of the plastic baits, which have proven to be effective in current.
Anglers may be turning to artificial baits even more this year, at least for opener, since most bait shops are having a tough time buying minnows. Fears of minnow shortages are hardly uncommon up here, where late ice-out can make it tough for minnow trappers to catch the inventory that’s needed to meet the demand for opening weekend.
Regardless, Nelson said he’s optimistic about the season, and notes that last year was the best season his crew of guides had ever seen for walleye, and he expects more of the same this year.
“Last year, Basswood was just on fire,” he said.
In fact, he said, the fishing has been so good that they’ve increasingly been able to rebook customers who had been used to going to Canada, but couldn’t during the pandemic. But with the hassles of border crossing, he said more and more anglers are sticking to the U.S. side, and finding the fishing is just as good in many cases.
We’ll all soon find out… you can drop your line officially at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning. Good luck!


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