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Wishing for walleyes: DL area anglers prepare for the big day

Michael Onstad of Quality Bait & Tackle shows off a net full of minnows. The shop is ready for walleye opener this weekend. Emily Driscoll/Tribune 1 / 4
Minnows for sale at Quality Bait & Tackle in Detroit Lakes. Emily Driscoll/Tribune2 / 4
Matthew and Michael Onstad, owners of Quality Bait & Tackle, with rods and lures for sale. Emily Driscoll/Tribune3 / 4
Michael Onstad with artificial baits at Quality Bait & Tackle on north Washington Avenue. Emily Driscoll/Tribune 4 / 4

Fishermen are getting excited about that ultimate rite of spring in Minnesota—the fishing opener for walleye, sauger, northern pike and trout in lakes, which starts at midnight on Friday.

With blue water beckoning them, anglers are getting their fishing boats ready and stocking up on gear, and bait shops and sport shops are busy.

"With the late spring we've had, people are a little hungrier to get out, people are a little antsier to get out (on the water)," said Lake Sport Shop employee Jim Keeley. "We've been selling a lot of fishing licenses, lots of tackle and fishing rods."

Shiner minnows are in short supply at bait shops right now, but that could change before the opener, said Tyler Kalberer, owner of County 6 BP & Bait. "Shiners are a bit tough (to come by) right now," he said. "But I'm optimistic things will start happening soon." Oftentimes with a late spring, the popular shiner minnows arrive in bait shops at the last minute before opening day. "The weather turns and we can usually get some," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, "we'll have different options available—suckers, rainbows, redtails, river shiners, leeches and worms. We have a bunch of new tackle in—we're ready to go."

Quality Bait and Tackle will stay open all night on Friday night in its new location at 524 Washington Avenue, said co-owner Matthew Onstad. If shiner minnows can't be found, co-owner Michael Onstad will recommend "either fatheads or small suckers or nightcrawlers," on a bait rig.

It may have been a long winter and a late ice-out, but "we're just happy not to have ice on the lakes," Matthew said.

Detroit Lakes fishing guide Brad Laabs is feeling positive about the opener.

"We're looking really good," he said. "Water temperatures are stable, in the moderate to upper 50s and climbing—we should have some shiner minnows moving up into shallow water ... they net and trap those shiners in shallow water," he said.

The recent rainy weather will only help to warm the lakes faster, he said. "We won't be short on shiners," which are key walleye bait this time of year.

If the walleye aren't biting, switch to another game fish. "We're probably just starting to get to some really good crappie fishing, it's a great fallback fish," Laabs said.

Friday and Saturday are supposed to be colder and wetter than Sunday and Monday, so the fishing might be better a day or two after opener, if the forecast holds, Laabs said. "Fish are neutral to negative during a cold front, but they're active coming out of a front."

All the lakes in this area are now ice-free, he said.

Jigs and shiners are one of the best bait producers for the opener, he said, but "you can never disregard the impact of leeches and crawlers to produce, too, and plastics are definitely playing a role in producing fish for people."

Where to find the fish

The opener will find northern pike, crappies, sunfish and walleyes all taking advantage of warmer shallow water and developing weeds. Laabs offers these tips on how to catch your limit on opening day:

The most sought after fish for the opener will be walleye. With the water temps climbing, look for the eating-size males to still be shallow. Focus on the 4- to 12-foot water, and then move deeper if you don't contact fish.

Most fish will still be relating to shoreline breaks, and the first break. Very few will be holding on mid-lake structure. Some of the bigger fish may be shallow early and late.

Jigs and minnows/plastics are an early season staple for prying walleyes from the lake. Shiner minnows should be moving up shallow to spawn with the warming water, and are an early season favorite for walleyes.

Live bait rigs (Lindy rigging, Roach rigging) are a favorite presentation for many, and have a history of producing. Hooks can be tipped with minnows, leeches, and nightcrawlers.

This opener, all these baits will be in play. A slip bobber is a classic presentation that works well to present bait to shallow fish. Leeches and minnows under the bobbers will have the most success. Stay away from the weed bed or rock pile and cast to the fish. The shallow dark bottom or stained water lakes warm the fastest, and will have fish shallow.

Some of the deep, clear lakes will have colder water, so look for the warmest water in the lake to be holding the fish shallow. If the shiners have not moved up onto the flats on the cooler lakes (water temps still in the low 50-degree range) look off the edges for walleyes looking to eat.

Tips from the DNR

-- By law, people have to make sure their drain plugs are pulled from their boat, all water is drained, and there's no plants attached.

But that doesn't mean you can't save your unused live bait.

Just plan ahead and bring a bucket of fresh water, with a frozen 2-liter bottle of water in it to keep it nice and cool, then transfer your minnows to the fresh water once you're done for the day.

-- New northern pike regulations are in effect: In this area, the north-central zone, there is now a limit of 10 northern pike (up from three) but not more than two pike can be longer than 26 inches, and all northerns from 22 to 26 inches must be released.

Anglers who plan to keep pike must be able to reliably measure their fish. Lay the fish flat on its side, squeeze the tail from tip to tip, and measure from the nose or jaw (whichever is longer) to the farthest tip of the tail when fully extended.

Anglers who catch and release northern pike can earn state records through an expansion of a DNR record fish program that previously included only lake sturgeon, muskie and flathead catfish in the catch-and-release category. There also is a catch-and-keep category; guidelines for both are at mndnr.gov/recordfish.

-- Mother's Day is Sunday, May 13, and fishing opener weekend doubles as Take a Mom Fishing Weekend. Minnesota moms can fish without a license Saturday and Sunday.

Don't just bring a life jacket, wear it. It's the one action most likely to help in surviving a fall into cold water. This time of year, the cold water shock "gasp reflex" can incapacitate even the strongest swimmer if they aren't wearing a life jacket.

-- The 2018 Minnesota Fishing Regulations Booklet and lake information through the DNR's LakeFinder site can be found at mndnr.gov/fishmn.