It almost, sort of, kind of, appears spring has sprung and some of the smaller area lakes – and even a few larger ones - are ice free at this point.
And while it could still snow and sleet and rain and be cold and miserable like spring in northern Minnesota tends to be sometimes, chances are the statewide walleye opener on May 11 is going to go off without a hitch.
So that gets an angler – or at least an opening day angler – thinking about fishing.
But where to go?
Many seek out small, lessor known lakes on the opener to avoid the lines and the general frustrations associated with the heavy traffic that converges on the popular spots.
That makes sense.
But even more are likely to hit the big lakes they know will produce on the opener, including some of the most popular fisheries in the state like Cass, Rainy and Upper Red Lake.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, those three bodies of water, along with Vermilion, Kabetogama, Lake of the Woods, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Pepin, and Winnibigoshish, make up the list of the 10 largest lakes in Minnesota and account for nearly 40 percent of the annual statewide walleye harvest.
Whether you hit one of them on the opener or not, everyone who takes the sport of fishing serious, should consider a trip to one of the lakes on the list at some point.. They great examples of the excellent fisheries the land of 10,000 lakes has to offer.
Here’s a look at a couple of them.
Cass Lake in Beltrami County covers about 16,000 acres and features 45 miles of lake shore.
With a maximum depth of 120 feet the lake is home to a wide variety of species including largemouth bass, northern pike and muskie.
But the fish of choice on Cass is the walleye.
According to the most recent DNR survey, The walleye population of Cass Lake is healthy and is comprised of good numbers of fish distributed among numerous size and age classes. The 2017 gill net catch rate was 10.8 fish per net, slightly less than the long-term median catch rate (13.1 fish/net).
Approximately half of the catch was between 14 and 17 inches. Most fish were ages one to nine and the oldest fish in the assessment was age 15.
The record-strong 2013 year-class, which averages about 16 inches, comprised over half of the total sample.
Clearer-than-usual water in 2017 was likely due to the well-established zebra mussel population and that trend is expected to continue. As a result, much of the Walleye fishing pressure is focused around low light periods or when there is a chop on the water as the clear water tends to keep fish deeper during the day.
Lake Kabetogama, in St. Louis County, is nearly 25,000 acres and features 190 feet of shore line.
This is another great lake for a variety of species. An angler here never knows what he or she might catch on a trip to this border lake.
Kab holds crappies, cisco, northerns, rock bass, sauger, smallmouth bass, perch, suckers and of course walleyes.
Lots of walleyes.
According to the latest DNR info, the Walleye gill net catch in 2017 was 9.6 fish/net which is greater than the historic average for Lake Kabetogama. Walleye gill net catches were at a historical low in 2014 at 5.5 fish/net.
The increase in the Walleye catch over those three years was largely due to a high catch rate of fish from the 2015 year-class which made up 25.1 percent of the 2017 catch.
The average length of 2015 Walleyes was 11.7 inches.
There is a special regulation for Walleye on Lake Kabetogama; a 17 to 28-inch protected slot, with one fish allowed over 28 inches, and a four-fish bag limit. The goal of the regulation is to keep harvest at a safe level and maintain adequate spawning stock.
Rainy Lake is another example of just how awesome our northern Minnesota fisheries are.
Covering a whopping 210,200 acres and featuring 2,200 miles of shore length, Rainy holds many of the same fish as Kabetogama and is known far and wide for its walleye fishing.
Recent DNR numbers show that the Walleye gillnet catch in 2017 was 5.7 fish/net, which is near the historic median for Rainy Lake.
For the prior 18 years the Walleye gill net catch rate has been at historically high levels. The Walleye catch rate from 1983 to 1994 averaged 3.98 per net; since 1995 the average is 7.35 per net.
Catch rates over the past 10 years have primarily been between six and eight Walleyes per gill net.
Overall, gillnetted Walleyes ranged in length from 6.9 to 25.2 inches long and had an average length of 14.1 inches.
There is a special regulation for Walleye on Rainy Lake as well: An 18 to 26 inch protected slot, with one fish allowed over 26 inches, and a four-fish bag limit.
The goal of the regulation is to keep harvest at a safe level and maintain adequate spawning stock.
One of northern Minnesota’s jewels is Upper Red Lake – a fishing destination all-year round.
According to the DNR, Upper Red Lake is a 120,000 acre lake, 60 percent (72,000 acres) of which is under the jurisdiction of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians (Red Lake Band).
The remaining 40 percent (48,000 acres) falls under the jurisdiction of the State of Minnesota.
The collapse of the Red Lakes Walleye population in the mid 1990’s has been well documented. Similarly, the cooperative recovery effort that included a total closure on Walleye harvest, a short-term Walleye fry stocking program, intensified population monitoring, and increased law enforcement efforts has been widely publicized.
In 2006, the Red Lakes were re-opened to Walleye fishing under a conservative set of harvest regulations. Walleye harvest allocations, as outlined in the harvest management plan, are based on the proportion of surface water acreage within each jurisdiction. Specific fishing methods and regulations for managing harvest within the allocations are determined individually within each jurisdiction. From 2006 when the Walleye fishery was reopened though summer 2015, the Walleye population was managed with a protected slot limit.
In December 2015, the size restriction for Walleye was modified to a “one over” regulation that allows the harvest of one fish over a designated size. This regulation is designed to allow harvest of fish over a broad size range and not focus the harvest on any particular size class of Walleye.
In addition to special Walleye regulations, a special harvest regulation for Northern Pike has been in place since the 2006 fishing opener. The regulation from 2006 through 2010 was a 26 to 40 inch PSL (only one fish over 40 inches allowed in possession) and beginning with the 2011 fishing season opener, this slot limit was widened to a 26-44 inch protected slot (only one fish over 44 inches allowed in possession) to increase protection for large pike.
The DNR states that the 2017 Walleye gill net catch-per-effort (CPE) was 36.8 per gill net. The incredibly strong 2011-year class continues to dominate the population with most of these fish measuring between 15 and 18 inches.