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How will a warm winter affect spring fishing? What to know before the opener

A person out fishing on the shore of a lake.
Cole Bassett casts his fishing line on the shores of Lake Shetek.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener is next Saturday and anglers are eagerly waiting to drop a line, hoping to reel in trout, bass, walleye and muskie. But the state’s unseasonably warm winter may have had an effect on fish hatch for some species.

Gretchen Hansen, assistant professor in the Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Department at the University of Minnesota, told MPR News the lack of snow and premature ice melt could affect the reproduction and survival of young fish — like walleye and yellow perch — in the springtime.

“A really short winter and early ice off can mean that when those young fish hatch out, they’re not matched with their food source. And that can lead to just low survival and abundance in future years, but might not be as visible, you know, right now at the fishing opener,” Hansen said.

“We here in Minnesota rely on our cold winters to kind of prevent certain pathogens or invasive species from being able to establish, and in years when we don't have that long, cold winter, we have a lot of concern about what might happen,” Hansen added.

Anglers have a lot to look forward to, said Brad Parsons, fisheries section manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“Walleye fishing will be really good and we really hope people can get out and enjoy it early in the season,” Parsons said in a statement. “But we have all kinds of other fish out there too and, particularly if the walleye aren’t cooperating, we encourage anglers try catching something else.”

a boy smiles and holds a fish
Christopher Winter smiles while he holds a shorthead redhorse fish next to the Mississippi River.
Courtesy of Tyler Winter

Weather variability, such as harsh winters in some years followed by warmer ones, concerns Hansen in the longer term. Reproduction and survival will be key indicators in the future.

In terms of interventions, Hansen said there’s an abundance of interest and active research into fish stocking — particularly, which species may be more resilient to new and changing climate conditions.

Before anglers head out, the DNR recommends checking out regional fishing outlooks to see what’s biting well and where.

“Back bays of lakes are great for finding abundant bluegill and crappie. Northern pike are almost always willing to bite, and there are all kinds of other native species out there like sucker species, freshwater drum and others that can really provide a lot of action and good food fare.”

The annual fishing opener is May 11, aligning with Mother’s Day weekend. Minnesota moms can take part in a free, virtual fishing challenge and cast a line without a license that weekend only. In general, all anglers ages 16 and older need a license and should be aware of regulations from the DNR.

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