By BRAD DOKKEN
Grand Forks Herald
GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Anglers can talk about the early spring, ideal water temperatures and whether the fish have recovered from spawning, but the opening day of walleye season in Minnesota always comes down to getting out there and learning firsthand what the fish are doing.
That's Duane Peterson's approach, at least. And as a recent inductee into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame along with his brother, John, the co-founder of Bemidji's Northland Fishing Tackle Co. knows what he's talking about when it comes to walleyes and opening day.
The 2012 version of Minnesota's grand outdoors tradition gets under way Saturday.
"One thing about this fishing game is we can predict this and that and speculate what's going to happen," Peterson said. "I'm going to play it like I do every other opening day of walleye season. I will go to the best areas I know as a result of past experience and tradition, sample what's happening and adjust accordingly based on what my first few hours tell us.
"That's the beauty of opening day — we find out when we get there, and we adjust accordingly."
Pick a lake or river in Minnesota, and this year probably set a record for early ice-out. That had fishing prognosticators thinking walleye opener 2012 would be more like early June, which often serves up some of the easiest, if not the best fishing of the year.
Lawmakers in the Minnesota Legislature even went so far as to propose moving the season up a week. The measure died, and Mother Nature intervened with a mostly cool April that now has water temperatures closer to seasonal norms. Come opening day, anglers likely can expect water temperatures in the mid-50-degree range.
"I think it's going to be a pretty darn normal opener," said Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "It's not going to be like June 1 fishing, which some people were thinking. It will be more like mid-May, which is pretty good."
Drewes said walleyes, which typically spawn in 46- to 50-degree water, should have finished spawning most everywhere across the state this week. That means many walleyes likely will have recovered and backed out of the rivers where they spawn and returned to lakes where they spend most of the year.
As a result, Drewes said, the DNR didn't implement springtime closures on rivers such as the Tamarack, which flows into Upper Red Lake, and the Mississippi River.
"That doesn't mean rivers won't be good, but they won't have the excessive harvest that would necessitate closures," Drewes said. "We're going to avert those situations, which is good news."
Drewes said he expects large northern Minnesota lakes such as Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Leech and Winnibigoshish all to be good bets for opening day. A recent spring survey on the Tamarack River produced numbers of 16- to 22-inch walleyes, Drewes said, along with occasional larger fish.
"There's a nice size distribution on Red," Drewes said. "The abundance is high, there's lots of fish under 17 inches and lots from 17 to 22 inches. So, if fishermen are willing to spread out from the mouth of the (Tamarack) river, they should have no trouble catching legal fish and some fun-size larger fish."
Opening day regulations on Upper Red require anglers to release all walleyes from 17 inches to 26 inches, and there's a four-fish limit. The DNR eases the size restrictions in mid-June.
Drewes said smaller lakes across northwest Minnesota also will be good options opening day. Lakes with particularly high walleye abundance, he said, include Lake Bemidji and all of the downstream lakes in the Mississippi River chain along with Otter Tail Lake closer to Fergus Falls, Minn.
"Otter Tail is just off the charts right now," Drewes said of its walleye abundance.
While current areas near river mouths might not be the walleye magnets they are some openers, they'll still be worth a try opening day. According to longtime fishing guide Brian Brosdahl of Max, Minn., anglers should explore other places if areas with current don't produce walleyes.
"Don't overlook shoreline-connected points that have shallows, rocks and weed growth," Brosdahl said. "That new generation of weeds is going to be hiding baitfish, and the walleyes are going to be in there."
He said many anglers make the mistake of fishing too deep on opening day. This spring, though, the fluctuation in both air and water temperatures likely means there's no wrong depth, he said.
"I think it's going to be a great opener," Brosdahl said. "I think we're going to find aggressive fish and not-aggressive fish. Go explore, don't just fish the classic spots. You're going to have a lot of fish all to yourself."