Jarrid Houston column: The long wait for open-water fishing is almost over

Ice is not yet out of all northern Wisconsin lakes, so head south or consider Lake Superior.

Jarrid Houston
Jarrid Houston
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DULUTH — The countdown is almost complete for the annual Wisconsin angler’s holiday we call The Opener. Minnesota’s turn comes on May 14. I have always loved the fact that living in this area of the world we get to celebrate back-to-back holidays.

Hopefully everyone has had the time to get the proper preparations completed. Just a reminder to make sure you have your new fishing licenses, updated boat registration and personal flotation devices for everyone on board your boat. As mentioned last week, open-water opportunities will be available, but you may have to travel a little south. Public docks at boat ramps however, may not be ready. Might be a good idea to bring some rubber boots or waders for launching/loading boats, and have a buddy to help.

For opening-day fishing, look for waters that have bottlenecks and current. Most of these areas will certainly be ice free. Another option is to leave the boat parked a little longer and try your luck fishing from shore. In either case, water temps will be cold, so it is encouraged to work your baits very slowly. Although there will be many ways to catch some fish, it's hard to beat a simple jig-and-minnow this time of year.

Let's dive into this week’s report:

It might not be a bad idea to get out and enjoy opening weekend on Lake Superior, which, while already open to fishing, has open water, easy access and the bite is really starting to crank up. It will only get better as we slide into warming temperatures. Fish are being caught on both the North Shore, from Duluth to Two Harbors, as well as around Bayfield. We still have some ice around Washburn and Ashland but it is rotting away and should be gone sometime next week. Downriggers aren’t necessary with the cold water temperatures. Anglers are still catching plenty of fish near the surface trolling hard-sided baits in bright orange and greens, mostly cohos. Our go-to is a long-lined Scatter Rap trolled 150 feet back off a planer board. Another successful tactic has been lead core fishing straight off the back of the boat. Depths have not mattered that much as most fish have been feeding close to the surface.


Smelt action is in the very preliminary stages, but reports are that South Shore smelters are starting to see a fish here and there. Nothing close to a big “run” yet. But buckle up as that should be here in short order. Once Ashland is totally ice-free and the water temps hit that magic digit, it will be game on.

Stream fishing has been decent for some fresh Lake Superior steelhead on the move this last week for some anglers. Best bet has been spawn under a float drifted over slack water. With the smelt gearing up, the stream fishing will get better.

The St. Louis River Estuary is ice free but remains off limits to regular game fish until May 14. However, rough fish are fair game and the river has seen a boost of good rodeo rides with freshwater drum the last few years. Look toward shallow cuts adjacent to shipping channels and you will find a few biters. Panfishing for crappies and perch has not turned on yet, but we are getting closer. I figure we are about two weeks behind schedule, give or take.

Inland lakes will remain cold as most are still transitioning to open water. Many smaller shallow lakes are further along to losing all their ice. The bigger waters of Douglas County, Wisconsin and other north lakes are still seeing a lot of ice coverage. I am afraid we will not make it to these waters for launching boats on opening morning. If we do, it will be a challenge for both fishing success and navigating water. The best bet may be to head south for open water and to look toward back bays that are warming up faster. It will be tough to get fast reactive fish. As mentioned, the best bet will be to use live bait rigging with minnows, and slowly dragging or still fishing under a bobber. Concentrate on typical soft bottom areas and if you have to choose morning vs. afternoon, later in the day will be better.

Good luck to all you open-water chasing anglers and as always, be safe, courteous to each other and enjoy your time on the water!

Jarrid Houston of South Range is a fishing guide ( ) on Minnesota and Wisconsin inland waters, the St. Louis River and, in winter, on Lake Superior.

Jarrid Houston of South Range is a fishing guide ( ) on Minnesota and Wisconsin inland waters, the St. Louis River and, in winter, on Lake Superior.
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