Brad Laabs: Tired of ice fishing? Try these day trips for open-water fishing

With some of the warming weather and snow melt, spring fever starts to set in for most of us. This also means I start to look forward to open-water season.

It can’t seem to come quick enough for me now. I know a number of ice anglers still stay fired up this time of year with the tullibee action that gets hot now. Many ice anglers also like the big northern pike chase that happens this time of the season on Lake of the Woods and Devils Lake, N.D.

The best chance for a northern 40 inches or over happens from now until it is not safe to be on the late ice. Crappies and gills through the ice still excite many, and you can hole hop with ease with the better weather conditions. I just don’t get as fired up for those chases anymore. I like to get back in the boat and chase after early open-water walleyes and sauger.

There are several early-season options for getting in the boat before area lakes become ice free that are a half day or day drive away.

One of my early-season favorites for many years has been pool 4 of the Mississippi River at Red Wing. The river is open year round from the lock and dam several miles downstream, and many times to the head of the lake (Lake Pepin, a widening of the river).


Walleyes and sauger are plentiful and chances for a trophy-sized picture fish always exists. The sauger sizes make the Lake of the Woods sauger look as small as they typically are. The average sauger at pool 4 run 15 to 17 inches on the river, with chances at some 20 inches or even a little bigger.

Pool 2 at St. Paul is also open for catch and release. Pools 2 and 4 are a half day drive. Other early season open water walleye fishing opportunities are available on the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. Chamberlin, S.D., has become a more popular destination over the last decade as the walleye numbers are very good for eating-sized fish, and the weather is normally a little warmer than our area. That bite gets rolling in April.

I have several times been down to fish the Illinois River in the Puru/Spring Valley area. That river bite starts in March and can last through the end of April. More sauger than walleye, but again, more of the 15 to 18 inch type sauger, and walleyes range from 15 to 22 inches most of the time when you get them. Plan on a long full-day drive for that bite.

One of the most popular and crowded early season open-water walleye situations is the Rainy River spring run that typically starts around the third week in March, and lasts until the season closes April 14. It is trophy hunting for most anglers, and one of the better locations for a chance at a 30-incher or better. It is catch and release only now. It can be crazy busy however, and sometimes an hour and a half wait to launch, parking problems, and long lines for loading can test patience.

I have not been over for the early open-water season along the shores of Green Bay at the many river inlets, or the Fox River, but they are on my bucket list. The numbers of fish, along with the big fish opportunities, make it worth putting on the trip list. That is a day drive for sure, and scheduling several days makes sense, as the wind and weather can be a factor. It may take a day, or several days, or several trips to start getting that bite wired as well.

I have been on the reefs on Lake Erie in April, and also fished the open water on the Detroit River in the early season in the past. They were awesome and memorable trips that make me want to go back and do them again. They are a longer drive, and a few more bucks out of the pocket for the trip, but well worth the experience. I like ice fishing -- but I like being in the boat better!

(Laabs owns Brad Laabs Guide Service in Detroit Lakes)


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