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Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, May 2, 2003

Walleye Populations Strong Throughout State 

When Minnesota's walleye and northern pike season opens May 10, angler success will be based on everything from the weather to whether an angler's bait is presented at the depths, speeds and styles that fish prefer.

One thing, however, is for sure. The fish are there.

"Minnesota's walleye populations are in very good shape," said Ron Payer, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources. "That's true of the large natural walleye lakes. It is also true of the medium- and smaller-sized lakes that benefit from the fry and fingerlings we raise and stock according to plan."

Payer said walleye populations are strong in part due to a string of moderate to excellent natural walleye hatches that began in the mid 1990s and continued through 2001.

"Hatches of the past are what determines the catch rates of today," said Payer. "Since natural production was better than average during the late 1990s angler success is likely to be better than average since those fish are now a cacheable size." Fish hatched in mid to late 1990s weigh anywhere from one pound to more than five pounds.

Around the state, DNR fisheries managers echo Payer's perspective that a promising fishing season is at hand.

Northeast: "I'm anticipating a good opener if the weather cooperates," said Tim Goeman, regional fisheries manager. "The walleyes are done spawning and have had nearly two weeks to recover. That means they should be beyond their post-spawn stress and back into a more normal feeding pattern."

Goeman said two of the northeast's most popular fishing lakes - Winnibigoshish and Rainy - should provide quality fishing again this year. "Both bodies of water have had length limit regulations in place that are really working," said Goeman. "As a result, anglers are seeing higher catch rates and more big fish than in the past. That's the best of both of worlds."

Lake Mille Lacs, he said, should produce high quality walleye fishing as well but not at the phenomenal rate of last year. "Anglers boated 3.5 million pounds of walleye last year," said Goeman, an amount nearly triple the previous record of 1.2 million pounds in 2001. "This year, because the prey base has increased substantially, we expect walleye to feed much more heavily on yellow perch than the baits of anglers." The perch boom of 2002 filled a void created by a perch bust in 2001.

Lake Vermilion has a solid walleye population, said Goeman, but the lake's muskies are generating the greatest increase in angling pressure. "Today, 11 percent of the anglers who come to Vermilion come to cast for muskie. That's up from 3 or 4 percent just six and seven years ago."

Muskie anglers are drawn to the lake, he said, by the fish's large average size, reports of fish in excess of 50 inches, and the shear beauty of Lake Vermilion. "We captured and released a 54-inch muskie in our survey nets last summer," said Goeman. "That's the kind of fish that anglers dream about all winter long."

The muskie season opens June 7 on most Minnesota waters.

Northwest: In general, the ice disappeared from lakes in northwest Minnesota during the second and third weeks of April. Walleye spawning is complete and the fish have had at least a week to recover. This should portend good fishing if the weather holds, according to Henry Drewes, regional fisheries manager. Trails and Waterways crews will be busy right up to the opener preparing boat ramps and installing docks. Work should be completed in time for the opener.

"The story in northwest Minnesota is that many lakes and rivers are much lower compared to the highs of the late 1990s and early 2000s," said Drewes. "That means river angling should be fairly good, in particular for channel catfish in the Red River and its tributaries."

Lake of the Woods, he said, has very good walleye population that features five strong years classes from 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2001. "Walleye will still be spawning when the season opens but typically by about Memorial Day the catch rates should really pick up," Drewes said. "The lake has good numbers of three- to six-year-old walleye."

The northern pike bite on Lake of the Woods also should be very good. "The bite starts in the bays and mouths of rivers," Drewes said. "We implemented a 30 to 40-inch protected slot for trophy management in 1996 on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River and it has worked very well."

Today, Drewes said, it is not uncommon for anglers to catch northern pike a yard long and trophy fish of more than 20 pounds are present in the lake. The lake's lake sturgeon fishing season closed April 30 and does not open again until July 1.

Walleye fishing at Leech Lake is expected to improve this year following a tough bite last year. "Walleye were tough to catch last year because yellow perch, their primary prey, were at level that was triple the long-term average," said Drewes. "The fish that angl*s angler success is likely to be bers did catch were mostly in the 20- to 23-inch range."

Walleye angling is expected to be very good on other larger lakes in the northwest including perennial favorites Cass and Otter Tail. Walleye populations in both lakes are very strong. Anglers are reminded that fishing for walleye on Upper Red Lake is closed. It will be several more years until the population has recovered to the point it can sustain a walleye fishery. Crappies are still plentiful in Red Lake as well as an excellent population of quality-sized northern pike.

South: Though many people think of northern Minnesota as a fishing destination, there are more than 250 fishing lakes in southern Minnesota between the Wisconsin and South Dakota borders. Southern Minnesota lakes tend to be shallower, more fertile, and warmer than northern lakes. That translates to faster-growing fish.

"The Cannon River Chain in LeSeuer and Rice counties should be good for walleyes, northern pike and panfish," said Huon Newburg, regional fisheries manager for southern Minnesota. "Others that look good for the walleye opener include Lake Elysian in Blue Earth County, Talcot Lake in Cottonwood County, Farah Lake in Murray County, Okabena Lake in Nobles County and Rock Lake in Lyon County." Lake Traverse also has a healthy population of walleye and other species.

In the Hutchinson area, Lake Marion is consistently among the best fishing lakes, Newburg said, with good numbers of walleyes, northern pike, large channel catfish and crappies, the latter in the seven- to nine-inch range. Other lakes that offer good fishing opportunities include Swan, Belle, Jennie, Collinwood, Washington, Stella and the South Fork Crow River downstream of the dam in Hutchinson.

Central: For anglers who intend to stay close to the Twin Cities, Pool 2 of the Mississippi River is an excellent choice. That is according to Dirk Peterson, regional fisheries manager, who noted this is a catch-and-release only zone between the St. Paul's Ford Dam and Hastings for walleyes, northern pike, saugers, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass.

"It's a trophy fishery in the shadow of the capital," said Peterson. "The big fish came back as a result of the federal Clean Water Act. They've been protected since the early 1990s and provide outstanding fishing in the heart of the city."

Fishing is an important part of Minnesota's culture, heritage and economy. Payer noted that recreational angling creates almost 50,000 jobs in Minnesota and that anglers spend 26 million days fishing each year. "Our state ranks second in the nation in the percentage of residents who fish and we rank third as a fishing destination for nonresidents," said Payer. "Those numbers speak to the importance of Minnesota's fishing culture and the reputation this state has as an angling destination."

In that walleye can be finicky on opening day, Payer advises anglers to try for panfish, crappie, or northern pike if the walleye action is slow. "I've learned that when the walleye are stubborn I don't need to be stubborn, too," he said. "I will often re-rig for crappies or northerns and enjoy the day. And that's what we want for all anglers - a safe and enjoyable day."


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