For many Minnesotans, the fishing opener unlocks the door to summer at the lake.
By Jason Abraham
Photography by Bill Lindner
A shrieking wind drove stinging snow pellets into Rainy Lake's Black Bay Narrows, where guide Barry "Fairly Reliable Woody" Woods had taken me to open the 1993 fishing season. "I know a perfect place to fish when the weather gets like this," he said, fueling my hopes for hot walleye action-or at least a spot out of the wind. "Hawaii."
Minnesota anglers consider the fishing opener-when walleye, northern pike, and sauger become legal game on the state's inland waters-one of the defining moments of their year. This year's fishing opener is May 14.
In the months before the opener, the DNR sells about 250,000 of the 1.3 million angling licenses sold each year. In the first two weeks of the season, anglers catch about 40 percent of the 3 to 4 million walleyes harvested in a typical year. Many head for the state's most popular walleye lakes-Mille Lacs, Leech, Winnibigoshish, and Cass among them. On their way, anglers crowd highways, restaurants, gas stations, resorts, campgrounds, and boat launches, collectively spending between $3 million and $5 million over opening weekend, according to estimates of tourism officials.
Although walleye is the prize, fishing sometimes comes second to socializing. "The fishing opener is great. We have 20 to 25 people-family and friends-at the cabin and every available floor space is taken," said Sarah Holmbeck, a 21-year-old Grand Rapids resident who goes to her brother's place on Bowstring Lake for the opener. "I haven't missed one since I was a kid. It's right up there with the deer and the duck opener."
Weather or Not. More often than not, the weather is the biggest story on the opener, which is always held two weeks before Memorial Day weekend. At least a trace of snow has been reported in northern Minnesota on four of the last 54 fishing openers (1963, 1968, 1993, and 2000), according to DNR assistant state climatologist Greg Spoden.
Temperatures on opening day have ranged from a low of 24 degrees at International Falls in 1996 to a high of 92 degrees in St. Cloud in 1987. Typically, fishing opener weather is partly cloudy with a low in the 40s and highs in the 60s or lower 70s.
On at least four occasions, some northern lakes were still frozen on the opener. Dennis Topp, DNR assistant fisheries supervisor in Baudette, fished through 12 inches of ice during the 1996 fishing opener on Lake of the Woods.
For Topp and his group of friends, the experience was unique. "Some of the old-timers were saying the last time people fished through the ice during the opener was 1950," he said. "Maybe it's kind of a once-per-generation experience."
Tradition! Whatever the weather, traditions-along with family and friends-draw Minnesotans to the lake.
"It's moms and dads and sons and daughters fishing walleye," said Travis Tuma, general manager at Joe's Sporting Goods in St. Paul. "People go to the same spots and see the same people every year. Everyone wants to catch a fish on the first day of the season."
Marv Koep's commitment to a traditional opening-day trip with his granddaughter nearly kept him from guiding Gov. Jesse Ventura during the 2001 Governor's Fishing Opener on Pelican Lake. A retired bait-shop owner and now part-time fishing guide, Koep has eschewed opening-day clients since 1991 in order to fish with granddaughter Nichole Bartella. "She was 10 when I first took her out on the opener," he said. "It's become a big part of our opening weekend tradition."
Before agreeing to guide the governor, Koep got his granddaughter's permission. "Fishing with her came first, but she understood. She said I could take the governor that one time," he said. "Nichole and I haven't missed an opener since, though."
Other Angles. Not all Minnesota anglers are lured by opening weekend. Some avoid the crowds and the hoopla, opting to wait a couple of weeks until lakes warm and -walleyes become more cooperative. Others steer clear of walleye fishing altogether. Trout anglers wait only until April and head for the spring-fed streams of southeastern Minnesota or Lake Superior and its rugged tributaries on the North Shore. And the dedicated cadres of anglers who doggedly pursue muskellunge open their season on the first Saturday of June.
Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, is among anglers who chase crappies, catfish, carp, and sunfish all year long. Like many Southeast Asian anglers, he is not as enamored of walleyes and northern pike, preferring instead fish that resemble those of his homeland.
"These fish look like species found in the rivers of Southeast Asia," said Chan-thanouvong. "Southeast Asian immigrants aren't as familiar with walleye and northern pike. We don't target those species."
Behind the Scenes. Opening-day festivities aren't fun and games for everyone. Law enforcement officers, outdoors reporters, and event organizers are at their busiest while anglers relax by wetting a line.
Ken Soring, a DNR conservation officer based in Grand Rapids, said workload begins to build as soon as the ice clears from area lakes. Citizens' tips about illegal snagging and netting of walleyes and northern pike, which spawn in shallow areas as water warms, often trigger the first enforcement actions of spring.
As the opener approaches, officers also work through local media to remind anglers about the importance of having working personal flotation devices, fire extinguishers, and lights, as well as current boat license stickers, for their boats.
Soring said the fishing opener isn't as busy as deer season, when officers are sometimes overwhelmed with trespass and illegal all-terrain vehicle incidents. Trespass complaints about anglers are few because most fishing lakes have a public access.
Still, the influx of anglers brings its own rush of enforcement issues. "It can get to be a frenzy to get to the cabin and get fish," he said. "We get people taking walleye the night before the opener, campground disturbances, boating while intoxicated-issues that come with a large group of people and anglers."
For Soring, who grew up fishing in the Grand Rapids area, working on opening weekend isn't a hardship because he would rather fish later in the spring, after water temperatures have warmed. "I still take the kids fishing, but usually after the big crowds have dissipated," he said. "The fishing tends to pick up more in early June."
Fishing for Stories. Sam Cook, longtime outdoors writer for Duluth News Tribune, has never spent a fishing opener with his family. Each year he writes a story about fishing the opener with someone in the newspaper's readership area, which includes much of northeastern Minnesota.
In the past 25 years, Cook has covered 23 openers. (He missed two because of illness.) He has fished walleyes from bridges, boats, canoes, and remote shorelines. One of the best stories, Cook said, came from fishing a railroad bridge on the Kawishiwi River near Ely with then-81-year-old Tobey Maki.
"He fished that bridge all the time and had it down to an art. We caught a bunch of walleye," Cook said. "But he kept saying, 'We gotta keep fishing to take fish back to the old people'-his friends. Here's a guy in his 80s who can still do it and still wants to share the sport. That's what fishing's all about."
Cook said his most challenging opener stories have been when weather conditions were average and the fish just weren't cooperating. "I can't help but feel bad for the subject of the story. They're going to have their 15 minutes of fame splashed across the outdoor pages. You want them to have good fishing for that, but unfortunately, it doesn't always happen."
Governor's Catch. Carol Altepeter never has time to fish on opening day. As a coordinator for the state office of tourism, she's busy managing the Governor's Fishing Opener.
Each year a different community hosts the event, which has been held since 1948. Attendees, besides the governor, include 150 to 175 television, newspaper, and radio reporters and an equal number of sponsors and other guests.
While the governor's fishing trip draws the most attention, the weekend typically includes a community picnic for about 1,200 local residents; a dinner for the volunteers, sponsors, media, governor, and guests; and tours of the host community.
"It kicks off the summer tourism season and celebrates the state's fishing heritage," Altepeter said. "It also provides some exposure for the host community and is a chance for the governor to find out more about a specific area of the state." This year, the Lake Vermilion Resort Association will host events in Cook and Tower, May 13-15.
Walleyes Thrive. Despite opening-day fishing pressure, walleye fisheries are replenished through natural reproduction as well as some stocking.
"Walleye are plentiful in this state, and we're in no danger of overharvesting," said Jack Wingate, research manager for DNR Fish and Wildlife. "We do have lakes where the average size of walleye has diminished because of harvest, but overall the harvest is sustainable."
In lakes where walleye size has diminished, the DNR, at the behest of anglers, sometimes uses special regulations to limit the harvest.
The opener, Wingate said, continues to be an excellent way to generate excitement about fishing and attract both kids and adults to the sport. Sales of fishing licenses generated about $24.2 million for managing fisheries in 2004. Fishing also gives kids an up-close look at the habitat and water quality that fish need to survive.
"Traditions get passed down to a new generation of anglers who will someday work to improve the state's natural resources," said Wingate. "That's what our work really comes down to."
Jason Abraham is a staff writer for the DNR divisions of Ecological Resources and Fish and Wildlife and contributing editor of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Bill Lindner is a nature photographer from St. Paul.