Fishing opener: With ice up north, southern lakes a viable option
Minnesota's up-north fishing syndrome is still highly contagious, though this year, some anglers might get a slight case of the southern syndrome.
With ice still gripping many far-north lakes, you would think more anglers would be thinking south, maybe the lakes in the Faribault-Mankato area, for Saturday's inland walleye-northern opener.
State natural resource and tourism officials and a Faribault bait shop, however, said they haven't heard a peep from anglers who are considering a change in their usual plans, though it's still possible there might be more anglers out around Faribault.
Dave Vogel, an Explore Minnesota tourism official for southern Minnesota, said he hasn't had one call from an angler seeking more information about walleye options in the lower half of the state. "It's interesting that I haven't heard," he said. Maybe people are looking online at the Department of Natural Resources Web site's LakeFinder section, he said.
It does seem people do think north, he said. He noted many Iowa anglers end up in southern Minnesota. "To them, they are coming north," he said.
Joan Hummel, head of communications for Explore Minnesota, said any interest in fishing in southern Minnesota "will be a very fleeting situation" because anglers again will head north after conditions improve, she said.
Andy Nagel, of Nagel's Live Bait in Faribault, said those who have the up-north syndrome around him won't bother with local lakes this weekend. "They are not getting excited at all" about the opener, he said. They'll just head north later.
As for around Faribault, "I don't think it (the opener) is going to be a barnburner," he said. It was slow last year when spring was so early, and the late spring isn't going to help much.
But tourism and Department of Natural Resources officials are trying to at least nudge some anglers our way by pointing out that walleye do indeed live down here.
Hummel said the weekly fishing report that comes out today will focus more on southern lakes because of problems up north. This week's report was difficult to compile because "everything was up in the air" with ice and weather, she said. "A lot of things could change."
This week's DNR weekly media releases include an emphasis on the fishing opportunities that exist in the metro area and on the Minnesota River.
A dozen state record-fish were caught in the metro area last year with the second-biggest, a 70-pound flathead catfish, caught on the St. Croix River in Washington County.
The area has many lakes (the 2012 Governor's Fishing Opener was at Lake Waconia on the southwest side of the metro area) as well as three rivers — the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix.
The Minnesota River has a much wider number of fish species than a typical lake, with 54 found in 16 stations from Ortonville and Minneapolis. They include walleye, sauger, northern, bass, muskies and catfish.
For those who choose the lakes in the Faribault-Mankato area, Nagel recommends French, Roberds or Cedar lakes around Faribault and Mazaska near Waterville. Cannon was good until cormorants and pelicans came in and began eating so many fish, he said. His suggestion: If you're going out, try crankbaits in the shallows.
T.J. DeBates, DNR fisheries supervisor in Waterville, said he also hasn't been getting distress calls from anglers who know their favorite up-north lake might still have ice. His take, however, is that some might think south. "There's a good chance people will be coming from up north," he said. Or maybe they are so fixated with going north that they will sit out the opener and call Memorial Day weekend their opener.
Like Nagel, said he southern Minnesota does have a lot of good lakes. "It's kind of a secret; a lot of people don't talk about it," he said.
Many lakes need to be stocked with fingerlings or fry because they lack good spawning areas, though fish in these lakes do go through the spawning cycle, he said.
While the drought dropped some lakes a few feet last summer, there was no significant winter kill. Heavy snows didn't come until later in the winter, so sunlight could penetrate and let plants produce oxygen, he said.
In his area, Tetonka and Francis had good bites last year, and don't forget the Minnesota River, he said, though it might be high from runoff. Madison and Washington are also solid options.
Because of the cold, everything is behind for spawning. He thinks walleyes will be in a post-spawn pattern, so fish should still be shallow. If it's warm out, he suggested trolling nightcrawlers with a Lindy rig or maybe shiners. Don't leave the crankbaits at home, he said.
Some details on lakes include:
• Madison Lake, in Madison, 1,439 acres, had abundant walleye in a 2011 survey. Expect nice-sized walleyes as gill-netted fish averaged 18.7 inches and a little more than 2 pounds. "The 2011 survey also indicated that Madison Lake may be an up-and-coming northern pike option as eight pike were captured per gill net."
* Fountain Lake, 521 acres in Albert Lea, had plenty of northerns in the 2011 netting. They averaged only a bit more than 2 pounds. There were also walleye that averaged 21 inches. Channel catfish were also plentiful.
* Albert Lea Lake, 2,685 acres also near Albert Lea, had an unusually high number of walleye caught in gill nets; many were 13 to 20 inches long.
* The Cannon River chain of lakes (Gorman, Sabre, Upper and Lower Sakatah, Cannon and Wells) offers many shore-fishing opportunities.
• Some public boat accesses on northern lakes have been damaged by the winter's heavy ice, and access roads are in poor shape.
• Wear your lifejackets at all times. Water will be extremely cold, and hypothermia will set in quickly if you fall overboard.
• Don't expect to find leeches in stock at your favorite bait shop. Almost none have been harvested because of the late ice-out.