The theme for this year’s statewide walleye fishing opener is simple yet unsatisfyingly sad – stay close to home.
In other words, if you live in Minneapolis, don’t travel to Tower.
If you live in Ely, don’t travel to Minneapolis.
Now, in most cases, very few if any people would ever considering leaving the Arrowhead to chase the state’s favorite game fish south of Hinkley but some probably take in the action in places like Brainerd or Bemidji.
But in 2020, that just isn’t in the cards due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz shut down the state in mid-March with a stay-at-home order meant to flatten the spread of the virus and despite the fact that the opener is still on, many outstate anglers are being asked to forego the usual routine and find a fishing hole they can get to and from on one tank of gas.
In theory, that’s going to make for a very different kind of opener. Typically it is a day where nearly 500,000 anglers take to lakes, streams and rivers across Minnesota to take part in what is considered by many to be an unofficial state holiday.
Many people – from hard core anglers to average men, women and children who probably don’t fish another day during the year - plan for the opener year-round and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to fish their favorite walleye lakes while pumping valuable dollars into rural economies by staying at resorts, and spending money at restaurants, gas stations, sporting goods stores, and bait shops.
While some may still travel and gather in groups, taking their chances (and washing their hands), many will stay home or at least try to follow the suggestions of Walz and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, both of which are advising we all stick to the plan as they’ve outlined it.
For weeks St. Paul has been urging anglers to plan to stick close to home on the opener and Wednesday the DNR sent out a press release with more specifics as to what they believe is best practice for this weekend.
“We need for Minnesotans to fish close to home,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said. “This is not the time to travel long distances to fish since travel can spread the COVID-19 virus, particularly to rural communities that may have more virus-vulnerable populations.”
According to Strommen, the DNR, in consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health, developed additional guidelines to minimize potential opportunities for transmission: No overnight stays; bring all needed supplies with you; and only go as far as you can travel and return on a single tank of gas or single charge for EV drivers.
The guidelines, she added, “will help protect many rural communities that are home to older Minnesotans and American Indians, groups that have a higher incidence of underlying health conditions.”
And don’t forget to keep a distance of at least six feet on the lake and at the boat landings, the docks and the piers, the DNR says.
Lucky for those of you within reading distance of this story, much of the best fishing in the state can be found in our backyard so following the travel rules shouldn’t be a problem.
There are literally hundreds of lakes in and around and within driving distance of the Iron Range and of course, some of the big-name ones will be heavily targeted by locals.
Starting in the Tower area we have Lake Vermilion, a big pond set up perfectly for social distancing that will provide anglers with the opportunity to catch a bunch of different species of fish including the most sought after, the walleye.
There is a protected slot from 20 to 26 inches on the lake with a four-bag limit that shouldn’t be hard to come by as DNR lake officials say there is an abundance of keepers in the 13 to 16-inch range.
On the opener on Vermilion many anglers will target the post spawn locations using a jig and minnow but a lindy rig can also produce results this time of year. The ice out date was right about average this year so fish will be found anywhere from 10 to 30-feet.
Seek out flats or bars, rocky structures and lake points.
And wear a life jacket – the water is cold.
Air temps on Saturday and Sunday should be in the mid to upper 50’s.
If you are looking to socially distance yourself from what should be a pretty heavily fished spot on Saturday (Vermilion), some of the other good spots can be found at Big Lake on the Echo Trail northwest of Ely.
The area also has a number of stream trout lakes such as Tofte, Miner’s Pit, High, and Dry Lakes and others offering rainbow, brook, brown, and splake trout fishing.
And don’t forget the awesome fisheries in and around Ely.
For many, Grand Rapids checks all the boxes for 2020 fishing opener as well (close to home, one tank of gas).
Some lakes to try in that area include Cut Foot Sioux, Island, Split Hand, or Round lakes.
The DNR reports these lakes support good numbers of keeper size fish and provide the chance at catching a large fish.
As is the norm these days, some of these lakes have special regulations so make sure you are familiar with those before heading out.
According to the DNR, the 17 to 26-inch protected slot limits on Trout, Swan, Split Hand, and Moose lakes were modified to 20 to 24-inch protected slots in 2020. This change will allow more harvest while still protecting size quality. Anglers should note the special regulations on Swan Lake now include tributaries streams.
The protected slot limit on Deer Lake near Effie was dropped.
Anglers on Winnibigoshish should find improved numbers of smaller fish in 2020, as the 2018-year class of walleye looks to be strong, the DNR reports.
Cold, clear, deep lakes such as Pokegama, Siseebakwet, and Trout lakes also provide excellent walleye fishing opportunities, but the action typically improves a little later in the season, as water temperatures slowly increase.
Two other options, although it might take two tanks of gas depending on where you start and how far north you go, are the Orr and International Falls areas.
In the Falls area the best and most consistent walleye-angling success can be found on Rainy – in the summer. Since it is a large, deep lake that warms up slowly, early season angling for walleye can be challenging.
The shallow bays, however, can be productive early, and according to DNR numbers there is a healthy population of walleye in the 12 to 13-inch and 15 to 17-inch length groups, to be found there.
Another choice is Kabetogama Lake, an excellent spot for shoreline fishing due to walleye spawning habits there.
Both Rainy and Kabetogama lakes currently have a protected slot limit for walleye. All walleye from 18 to 26-inches long must be released, with one walleye over 26-inches allowed in a possession limit.
Finally there is Pelican Lake near Orr, a big lake full of a lot of different types of fish, especially northern pike. There are special regulations for pike and bass there so check the regulations for details.
In Minnesota, you need to buy a fishing license if you’re 16 or older. Licenses allow you to fish from March 1 to the last day of February the following year. They are available at many convenience stores or online on the DNR web site.