Fishing season off to slow start; DNR lures new groups to the water

Jim Jahnke holds a northern pike he caught on Fountain Lake.
Jim Jahnke holds a northern pike he caught and later released on Fountain Lake in Albert Lea, Minn., on the 2019 fishing opener on Saturday.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota endured another long — seemingly never-ending — winter with some locations receiving a record amount of snow. And in the same week northern Minnesota saw more than 10 inches of snow in May, the Land of 10,000 Lakes celebrated its 2019 fishing opener last Saturday.

It was the first day of the year when the state allows anglers with a license to catch walleye, northern pike, lake trout and many other fish found in lakes and rivers across Minnesota. However, lower-than-average temperatures and high water on rivers this spring discouraged some Minnesota anglers from getting out for the start of the fishing season.

"The reports that I've been hearing from various places around my region are that the fishing was a little tougher this opening weekend because of that colder water," said Brian Nerbonne, the state Department of Natural Resources's central Minnesota fisheries manager. "Bigger rivers like the Mississippi and the St. Croix, which are very popular fisheries in themselves, they've got a lot higher water and that really has changed the conditions out there."

In northwestern Minnesota, late ice-out and freezing nights in early May also made fishing on the opener challenging, said Henry Drewes, the DNR's northwestern Minnesota fisheries manager.

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"Water temperatures this season on the May opener were very cold — typically 42 to 45 degrees across much of northern Minnesota," he said. "So, that made for some very cold water and in some places some very tough fishing."

According to the Minnesota DNR, the number of fishing licenses sold by the Friday before the opener decreased by 5 percent this year from last year. Opening weekend sales dropped even more — by 12 percent from last year. The DNR said 42,338 licenses were purchased over the opening weekend this year.

"We were a little bit worried that there wasn't as many licenses sold a week ago [compared to] this time last year," said Jack Lauer, the DNR's regional fisheries manager for southern Minnesota. "And again we had another cool to colder April, lower than normal temperatures — and people start to think about other things [than fishing.]"

Fishing for 'all Minnesotans'

Although the weather ahead of the opener wasn't particularly cooperative, the Minnesota DNR plans to provide programs and events for both experienced and beginner anglers this season.

From the opener through the end of May, anglers on Lake Mille Lacs can keep one walleye between 21 and 23 inches or one walleye over 28 inches, according to the DNR. In 2016, the department went to catch-and-release only and banned the use of live bait on the lake. Catch-and-release fishing for walleye returns on June 1.

"This year, because that walleye population has bounced back, we were able to offer at least a limited opportunity for some people to harvest a walleye there," said Nerbonne, from the DNR's central Minnesota fisheries office. "We've been really happy to see that, and I think that anglers that go there this year are going to find that the fishing is quite good."

The open-water season also welcomes those from groups for whom fishing isn't a cultural tradition. The DNR has launched programs and events for new anglers to get out on lakes and rivers and learn how to fish.

In Albert Lea, Minn., the day before last weekend's Governor's Fishing Opener, young anglers had an opportunity to learn how to cast a rod and reel for the first time at the kids' fishing event hosted by the DNR.

Young anglers learn how to fish at the kids' fishing event in Albert Lea.
Young anglers learn how to fish at the kids' fishing event hosted by the DNR on Friday, May 10, 2019, in Albert Lea, Minn., a day before the governor's fishing opener in town.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

"In Minnesota, we know by license sales that about one in four people over the age of 18 buys a fishing license," said Lauer. "So, starting young, getting kids to shore to understand fishing — the quicker they really understand conservation. And that's important. The fabric of Minnesota life — lakes and recreation is part of who we are."

For women, the DNR runs a program — "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" — to teach them how to fish and encourage female anglers to get outdoors. The classes in the program are led by women, too.

"They create a nice support group and they create peers that they can then, maybe in the future, go out together and go fishing once the class is done," said Nerbonne.

Nerbonne said his office is also making efforts to reach out to minority groups who "maybe have been less likely to participate [in fishing]." An officer whose job is to engage the Latino community is working with different youth groups and organizations around the Twin Cities, he said.

"[We] create opportunities for them to learn about fishing and then to give fishing a try. And that includes not only the kids but the adults in their lives, too," said Nerbonne. "So, they've organized a lot of events and different things to try to spur that interest amongst the Latino community."

He said the office is starting a similar pilot program with the Karen community.

"It's really exciting to get out there and try to grow the participation in an activity that is really important to Minnesotans," he said. "And we want to make sure that that's for all Minnesotans."