VIRGINIA — It might not feel like winter is over in Northern Minnesota, but Saturday’s walleye fishing opener marks the season finale nonetheless.
Thousands of Minnesotans — men, women and children from all walks of life – are set to converge on the state’s waterways to chase the tasty treat so revered it is the official freshwater fish of Minnesota.
It’s a holiday like no other, celebrated with hook, line and sinker.
The numbers tell the tale: Minnesotan’s spend an average of $2.4 billion on angling and angling related purchases every year including more than $900 million on food, lodging and transportation and another $376 million fishing rods, reels and lures, according to the most recent survey information.
That’s a ton of cash flowing through the registers of local stores, hotels and eateries each year.
And opening weekend is one of the busiest fishing weekends of them all.
So what can anglers expect when they head out Saturday?
In the northern part of the state they are probably going to get wet. Mid-week forecasts were calling for 56 degrees and rain on Saturday.
Sunday’s forecast looked a little better - partly cloudy and 58 degrees.
On the opener, though, the weather doesn’t really matter. People will go despite cold or rain or snow or all of the above.
They just want to fish.
A popular destination for many will be the Tower, Soudan and Ely areas, including Lake Vermilion, one of the Iron Range’s best fisheries. According to Department of Natural Resources officials, who put out an annual opening weekend forecast report, there will be plenty of opportunity for action.
In the Tower area, Lake Vermilion should provide anglers with a lot of opportunities to keep walleye across a wide range of sizes.
The protected slot from 20 to 26 inches with a four fish bag limit is still in place but as of late there seem to be a load of keepers from 16 to 20 inches.
And, of course, the occasionally trophy.
New this year: Vermilion pike will be regulated under the northeast zone regulation so all pike from 30 to 40 inches must be released, with only one pike allowed over 40 inches in the two fish bag limit.
According to the DNR, recent surveys of lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness point to some excellent walleye lakes for that wilderness opener experience: Birch, Knife, Clear and Ottertrack. Both Trout and Kekakabic in the BWCAW have healthy lake trout
Closer to Ely, Bear Head Lake in the state park has a nice abundance of walleye between 12 and 20 inches as well as decent size largemouth bass.
Further north, the best and most consistent walleye-angling success on Rainy Lake usually occurs during the summer months when fish can be found on the mid-lake reefs.
That’s because Rainy is a large, deep lake that warms up slowly and as a result, early season angling for walleye can be challenging.
That being said some success can be found in shallow bays that warm up quickly (Black Bay for example) and areas with current, fisheries experts say.
The 2018 fall assessment of Rainy Lake found good numbers of walleye in the 12 to 13 and 15 to 17-inch length groups, which should provide good angling opportunities in 2019.
Kabetogama Lake usually becomes ice free about a week before Rainy Lake and warms quicker since it is smaller and not as deep.
According to the DNR, the earlier warm-up often results in good early season success for walleye anglers on Kabetogama. Much of the shoreline provides excellent walleye spawning habitat so the fish are well distributed, and anglers don’t have to go far to find fish.
A very strong year-class of walleye produced in 2015 and good production in 2016 will provide angling opportunities for eating sized walleye this year.
The walleye slot limit on Kab was modified on March 1 to an 18 to 26-inch protected slot limit, with one walleye over 26 inches allowed in possession.
That applies to all lakes in the Namakan Reservoir.
Anglers looking to hit Pelican Lake near Orr – a large body of water that provides opportunities to catch northern pike, bass (largemouth and smallmouth), walleye,
black crappie and bluegill – should be aware of several regulations in place.
The lake is now part of the North Central zone regulation for northern pike (22 to 26-inch protected slot, 10 fish bag limit and only two larger than 26 inches).
A bass regulation protects fish from 14 to 20 inches.
In the Grand Rapids area anglers looking to catch good numbers of quality walleye, along with some fish for the frying pan, should focus on shallow, fertile lakes early in the fishing season, DNR officials say.
Those lakes have stained water that warms up quickly and are typical favorites for early season anglers. Some lakes to try include: Winnibigoshish, Cut Foot Sioux, Island, Split Hand or Round.
Anglers will find that these lakes support good numbers of keeper-sized fish and provide the chance at catching a large fish. Be sure to note that special regulations exist on these waters so consult the fishing regulation book prior to heading out.
Anglers looking for fast action for smaller walleye should consider Bowstring or Jessie lakes. 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.
Anglers looking for a break from walleye or pike fishing will find excellent panfish opportunities throughout the Grand Rapids area.
Yellow perch numbers are up in Winnibigoshish, providing quality fishing opportunities. Several area lakes also provide good bluegill and crappie action early in the season. Popular spring panfish locations include Split Hand, Bass, Graves and Dixon lakes.