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Why walleye, you ask? Anglers, guides and others weigh in on the attraction of this popular fish

They call it the Minnesota “fishing opener,” but everyone knows the day is really about the walleye.

WISCONSIN FISHING OPENER
For some anglers, it's those sharp teeth, the spiny dorsal fin and the eyes that make the walleye such an appealing fish. Others say it's the flavor of the white, flaky flesh and the challenge walleyes sometimes can present when trying to catch them. Whatever the reason, there's something special about the walleye among anglers in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Sam Cook / Duluth News Tribune
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GRAND FORKS – Minnesota’s fishing season opens Saturday, May 14, and anglers by the thousands will hit their favorite lake or river in pursuit of walleyes, northern pike, bass and trout in lakes.

They call it the “fishing opener,” but everyone knows the day is really about the walleye – Minnesota’s state fish and a species revered among any Minnesota angler worth his or her salt.

No doubt, walleyes are a special fish in this part of the world. The same holds true across the Red River in North Dakota, even though the northern pike is North Dakota’s state fish.

There’s something about a walleye. …

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With that in mind, we asked a handful of avid anglers, fishing guides and biologists to share their thoughts about the walleye and what it is about the fish – or the opener – that makes it so special among so many.

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Here’s what they had to say.

Toby Kvalevog

A goalie for the UND hockey team from 1993 to 1997, Kvalevog teaches physical education in Brainerd, Minnesota, and, beginning with the fishing opener, works as a fishing guide in the Leech Lake area as a partner in Leisure Outdoor Adventures.

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Former UND goaltender Toby Kvalevog admires a walleye he caught in June 2014 on Leech Lake.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Walleye fishing in Minnesota is as popular as anywhere. Why? To me, walleye fishing starts with tradition. As long as I can remember, 90% of the bait shop conversation when it comes to fishing is in regards to walleye. Before social media, if you wanted to see pics or hear reports, that is where the information could be found.

With the Land of 10,000 Lakes and a partially closed season on inland waters (March to May), we are limited to how and when we can chase this tasty morsel. Having an “opening day” after a three-month delay allows for a recharge – “Ready, set, go!” if you will. Some would argue that it rivals the opening day of deer season or – might I even say – holiday status?

The tradition of opener, along with the availability and table fare demand of a walleye, undoubtedly makes it one of the most popular freshwater fish in the Upper Midwest and for sure here in Minnesota.

Al Pemberton

Pemberton, of Redby, Minnesota, is director of the Red Lake tribal Department of Natural Resources who also guides on the many small lakes on Red Lake Nation lands that are open to nontribal anglers who hire a tribal fishing guide.

Al Pemberton
Al Pemberton, director of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources.

I think it’s just the taste of (walleye), and it’s just really fun to go after them. They’re kind of elusive, almost. But boy, on the big lake (Lower and Upper Red Lake), they’re not elusive no more; there’s a lot of them.

Culturally, it’s just a good food for everybody. A good food source, and back in the day, you’d know that you were never going to starve because of that food source in our lake. They used to call it “Our Icebox,” the old people.

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I like frying them. I’ve eaten them all different ways, even baked. One of my friends in Canada, they make fish patties out of them. They boil them and then take boiled potatoes and cut them up into little pieces and then add onions and chives and stuff in there. And then the walleyes, once you boil them, you let them cool and then mix them in there with the potatoes and make them into patties and put a breading on top of them and then pan-fry them. Holy man, is that good! I’d never eaten those like that, but boy, that was good.

You’d have to be a pretty bad cook to wreck a walleye.

Brad Durick

Durick, of Grand Forks, is a Red River catfish guide whose views on the walleye offer a marked contrast to others who contributed to this story.

Brad Durick walleye.jpg
Grand Forks catfish guide Brad Durick with a walleye he caught in October 2016 while trolling crankbaits.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

So, why are there people up here who don’t think it’s a fish unless it is a walleye? A few simple things come to mind. First and foremost, I think it is the socially accepted thing to do. It seems to be an “Everyone loves to chase walleye so I will, too,” attitude.

Second, many people love to eat them. They are a very mild, tasteless fish, so that goes with the “salt and ketchup are spice” crowd.

Third, people say they are challenging. Some days, all fish are challenging, but I have never thought that catching a walleye was all that difficult. Big ones, like over 25 inches, yes; but smaller, eater-sized walleyes, not really.

Lastly, and it may go with the first reason. You can buy walleye tackle in every size and color. There is no shortage of tackle to buy, from crankbaits to jigs to colored hooks. The bigger the tackle box, the better. You can buy rods ranging from $15 Shakespeares to $300 Fenwicks and beyond. Boats, too. After all, who doesn’t want to be seen out on the lake in a big, glittery boat that cost as much as a house in the ’90s? Some might call it retail therapy.

I guess people make walleye king and will only fish for them because it is the socially accepted fish of the Northland. We want to fit in with our friends and neighbors – who doesn’t? For generations, we have been groomed that if it is not a walleye, it is not a fish. Walleyes have been strictly regulated, monitored and are widely stocked so there are lots to catch. They are just about everywhere in northern lakes.

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As a catfish guide, I can tell you that the tide is turning, as more and more northerners expand their horizons and try other species, such as catfish. I can also tell you that if you get just a few states away, many anglers have no interest in walleyes.

Paul Radomski

Radomski, of Brainerd, is a fisheries research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and author of the soon-to-be-published “Walleye: A Beautiful Fish of the Dark.”

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Paul Radomski, fisheries research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Brainerd and author of "Walleye: A Beautiful Fish of the Dark."
Contributed / Heather Skinner, University of Minnesota Press

It is a beautiful fish, isn’t it? I mean, look at it. It’s got a big spiny dorsal, it’s got a big mouth, it’s got scales and spines all over its body. If you look really close, you can see some spines that make you go, “Oh my God, look at that!” It’s kind of like armor.

You look at the eye, and it’s dark, and it’s got a ring of gold around it; it’s a beautiful fish.

And then, to go fishing for it, right? It’s a nice fish, and there’s opportunities – when things are just right – to catch a few fish. So, it’s a challenge, but at times, you can catch them. And then, it’s a good fish to eat. I love eating walleye. And I think for all those reasons, people are drawn to it.

Curt Quesnell

Quesnell, who lives near Long Point on Lake of the Woods north of Williams, Minnesota, is the owner of NCOR Fishing Guide Service on Lake of the Woods.

081119.O.GFH.LAKEOFTHEWOODS-1. Curt Quesnell walleye.JPG
Curt Quesnell of NCOR Fishing Guide Service on Lake of the Woods holds a walleye he caught near Long Point north of Williams, Minn., in September 2017.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Growing up in Minnesota, walleye was king. I am sure my first fishing trips with my dad when I was 3 years old were trying to catch walleyes (trying).

Catching walleyes is easier now than it used to be, thanks to education and improvements in fishing electronics. It was a huge challenge to get enough walleye for suppers back then.

Even now, it is pretty tough some days.

Awesome fish, the walleye, and one more thing – delicious!

Tom Neustrom

A 40-year fishing guide and member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame, Neustrom, of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is hosting Gov. Tim Walz for this year’s Governor’s Fishing Opener.

Fishing guide Tom Neustrom
Fishing guide Tom Neustrom.
Contributed / Star Tribune (TNS)

It’s the Minnesota state fish for one. I think it’s a tradition and I think, of course, the fishing opener is almost like the Walleye Opener – which it is – but I think it’s tradition and I think people like to catch walleyes. They like to eat them, too.

It’s really a catch-and-consume fish. Catch-and-release is fine – and you can catch a whole bunch of them and let them go – but people want to keep a few to eat, and they are a good-eating fish.

I just think it’s a traditional thing. You go back decades and decades and decades – as far back as you can think – and the opening weekend of fishing in Minnesota has always been about walleye fishing. And I think that’s the thing.

The techniques haven’t changed a lot over the years, but we’ve modified things a little bit, and we’re better at what we used to do years ago – we’re just better at it.

But I think the walleye is traditionally that fish of choice on the opener.

Joe Henry

Henry, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, is an avid angler and executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.

Joe Henry and fish net.jpg
Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Walleyes are so cool. First off, look at them. They’ve got that golden color – it’s a gold you can’t explain – it’s a blended gold color. Even their eyes – look at their eyes, big marble eyes. They're cool as heck.

When you look into their mouth from the front, they’ve got those teeth, and it’s not like pike teeth that are in a row; these are like all-scattered fangs.

And then, it’s cool because they’ve got that white tip on the tail – the bottom of that tail’s kind of neat. And then they have that dorsal fin that looks so cool for pictures when you first get them out of the water with that dorsal sticking up. And they’ve got those sharp gill plates. They’re a predator, man, and they’re just a cool fish.

They’re a fish of mystery. They’re a fish that’s not always so easy to catch.

Of course, we kid around with our bass buddies. We call those fish “grass carp,” and they call our fish “gravel lizards.” There’s a mystique about a walleye that is just so special.

And then, of course, to top it off, it’s our Minnesota state fish. It’s one of the best-eating fish you’ll ever have. And then, of course, fishing the Walleye Capital of the World – and with respect, there’s a lot of great walleye lakes and rivers in the Midwest – but we certainly know Lake of the Woods is one of them. To have that mystique of those walleyes. And to see that fish coming up from the depths shaking its head back and forth. It’s just a cool fish.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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