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Ice angst rules as Minnesota anglers prepare for their opener

Mike Anderson of Duluth stocks up on jig heads Wednesday at Marine General. (Steve Kuchera /

Chad Johnson isn’t sure just where he’ll be fishing for Saturday’s Minnesota fishing opener — or how. The Duluth angler, shopping for fishing gear at Marine General Supply in Duluth on Wednesday, hopes to be fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“I plan on going,” Johnson said, “but I’m not sure planning is going to work.”

He knows the lakes might not be in a liquid state up near the Canadian border.

“We might be walking on the ice up there,” he said. “This year, it could be the opening of fishing with an auger.”

Ice is on a lot of anglers’ minds as the opener approaches, said Marine General employee Fred Rogers.

“Everyone who comes in wants to know how much ice there is on the inland lakes,” Rogers said.

With the opener just six days away, anglers — along with resort owners, bait dealers, tackle shops, gas station owners and boat dealers — still are hoping ice leaves northern Minnesota lakes in time for the opener.

This year’s opener is as early as it can be, calendar-wise, and April’s soupy, snowy, soggy and generally unsunny weather has delayed ice-out on many waters.

The St. Louis River in Duluth, a favorite walleye destination, is open and probably will be fishable. Most ice-watchers think Duluth-area lakes will go out before the opener. Lake Winnibigoshish and Leech Lake are likely to be open, say those who live on their shores.

But farther north, nobody knows.

“It’s still up in the air,” said Russ Brzoska of Babe’s Bait in Ely on Wednesday. “There will be some fishable water, but there’s still quite a bit of ice.”

 Ryan Breden of Isabella had a new fishing rod and reel in his hands at Marine General Supply in Duluth on Wednesday. He’s ready for anything.

“If the ice is out, I’ll probably go out,” Breden said. “Or (if not), I’ll go ice-fishing. You take it as it comes. If you can’t fish the opener, no big deal. I’ll just fish for steelhead a little longer.”

Even steelhead anglers were up against it at mid-week. Their North Shore streams were open, but most were too high with run-off to fish.

Steve Sutherland of Superior is going fishing Saturday. He’s sure of that.

“I’m pumped, as usual,” said the die-hard fisherman. “We’ll probably end up on the (St. Louis) river. I don’t know how Fish (Lake) and Island (Lake, both near Duluth) are going to be. I can’t imagine they’ll be completely open. I don’t know if those back bays are going to be open.”

Meanwhile, the delayed ice-out and the dreary weather have given anglers plenty of chances to spool new line on their reels, buy more tackle and get their boats ready.

“I’ve got my full staff wrenching now,” said Ray Hernesman, owner of RJ Sport & Cycle in Duluth. “We’re rigging boats.”

But many anglers have just gotten to their boats recently as the more than 130 inches of snow that fell in Duluth over the winter have finally receded.

“Now we need some sunshine,” Hernesman said.

Anglers — and everyone else — would agree. Duluth saw rain or snow every day this past week, as temperatures hovered around freezing. Ice choked the west end of Lake Superior, and at midweek the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alder had to usher a string of seven ore boats through the jumbled mess.

Resort owners on Lake Winnibigoshish near Deer River are optimistic about ice-out on the lake.

“The ice is going to be out, probably this weekend,” Bill Heig of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish said on Wednesday.

Pat O’Reilley, president of the Lake Winnibigoshish Area Resort Association, figures the ice will go out Wednesday . Cut Foot Sioux Lake, connected to Big Winnie, already was mostly open at mid-week, said Joe Karau of Williams Narrows Resort.

Ben Kellin of Ben’s Bait in Grand Rapids isn’t quite as optimistic about lakes in the Grand Rapids and Deer River area.

“It’s going to be so nip and tuck,” Kellin said.

This year’s ice-out issues come on the heels of last year’s opener, when lakes across much of Northeastern Minnesota remained ice-covered. Resorts suffered cancellations. Bait shops missed out on a huge weekend.

Nobody connected with the fishing industry wants to see a repeat of that.

“You never recover,” said Brzoska, of Babe’s Bait in Ely. “It’s not like we’re going to get droves of people later in the season because we had a bad opener.”

At Marine General, owner Russ Francisco sees a positive in this cold, inclement April. Anglers are shopping.

“We’re busy,” he said. “People are buying a lot of electronics (fish finders), rods and reels. We’re spooling (new line on reels) like crazy. People are taking the time to get ready.”

Hernesman sees that at RJ Sport & Cycle, where his crew is putting much of that new gear on boats.

“It’s a big mix of everything,” he said. “People are buying electronics, new graphs, new trolling motors.”

Now, all anglers need is a break from Mother Nature.

Minnesota fishing opener info When: Saturday, May 10, starting at 12:01 a.m.

What you’ll need: A Minnesota fishing license, $22 for resident individual angling; $5 for youth 16 and 17; $35 for resident married couple angling; $45 nonresident individual angling.

Ice-out issues: Ice-out is progressing slowly northward, but some lakes may remain ice-covered or partially ice-covered on opening weekend. Check with bait shops or other local sources for the latest conditions.

Fishing closures: Some waters that aren’t usually closed will be closed to walleye fishing this year to protect concentrations of walleyes. For the current list, go to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website at and go to the “Fishing” page.

Bait issues: Due to late spawning of spot-tail shiners and winterkill in some bait ponds, anticipate a tighter supply of minnows for opening weekend, says Dave Spartz of Longville Bait Co. in Longville, Minn. Bait shops should have fatheads, but shiners might be hard to find.

Invasive species: Remember to follow rules to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. Those regulations are spelled out on pages 3-17 of the Minnesota Fishing Regulations booklet.