Opening-day anglers find a few walleyes willing to bite on Leech Lake

ON LEECH LAKE -- Oh, what an opener. At 7:30 a.m. Saturday, anglers waiting to launch boats at Federal Dam on Leech Lake were backed up a block deep waiting to get on the water. "I haven't seen it like this in a long, long time," said Tom Neustro...

Tom Neustrom
Tom Neustrom (left) of Grand Rapids checks out a walleye he caught Saturday morning on Leech Lake during the Minnesota fishing opener. Dave Schmit of Grand Rapids netted the fish for him. (Clint Austin /

ON LEECH LAKE -- Oh, what an opener.

At 7:30 a.m. Saturday, anglers waiting to launch boats at Federal Dam on Leech Lake were backed up a block deep waiting to get on the water.

"I haven't seen it like this in a long, long time," said Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids.

All of the parking spots were occupied at the main landing. Anglers had to shuttle their pickups and trailers to a lot across the highway to park.

"We haven't had to go to the overflow for 10 years," said Neustrom, who was fishing on Leech with his regular opening-day partner, Dave Schmit of Grand Rapids.


Neustrom attributed the strong turn-out to two factors: delightful weather and the well-documented walleye comeback on Leech Lake.

The weather alone might have done it. It was nothing short of spectacular, rising from an overnight low in the mid-30s to a sweltering midday high in the mid-70s.

It was a kick-back, soak-it-up, where's-the-sunscreen opener, something extremely rare by northern Minnesota standards.

The shoreline launching jam quickly translated to a flotilla of dozens of boats on the flats off Federal Dam on Leech Lake. You wouldn't have needed a lake map or a chip in your locator to know where the flats were. You could trace the outline in Lunds and Crestliners and Alumacrafts.

The anglers in all of those boats knew that Leech Lake had come back from its doldrum walleye days several years ago.

"Over the last five years, the combination of thinning the cormorants and stocking by the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) has led to a resurgence of the walleye population," Schmit said.

Walleye fishing has been unbelievable.

"The fishing in the past two years has been some of the best ever seen in Leech Lake history," Schmit said.


Schmit and Neustrom and I hoped to offer further evidence of that trend on this opener. Neustrom, a fishing guide, avoided the crowds on the flats and headed for a shoreline break along the north shore. A light breeze was growing out of the south, but we'd need more of it to get the walleyes to turn on in Leech Lake's clear water.

We started tossing green, 1/8th-ounce Northland Gumball jigs tipped with shiner minnows in 11 feet of water.

"I don't expect them to be chewing," Neustrom said, fearing that the previous days' cold front might have cooled the bite.

But by 8 a.m., Neustrom tightened his line on a 17-inch walleye, and Schmit slipped the net under it.

"We're on the board," Schmit said.

When that spot failed to produce another fish in 20 minutes, Neustrom was gone. He slipped his big Lund down the shoreline until he found piles of baitfish on his fish finder. Neustrom isn't impatient, but he exhibits a quality all good fishing guides have. He doesn't stay long in spots where the fish won't bite.

"You gotta be where the fish live," he said.

It wasn't long before he brought another one up, this one from 7½ feet of water on the same jig and minnow presentation. It, too, went into the live well, destined for a Neustrom-Schmit entree.


Even fishing away from the armada on the flats, we found ourselves amid 15 or 20 boats most of the time. But these anglers were all classy, nobody trolling or drifting too close to anyone else.

The wind freshened for a while, and we put a few more walleyes in the boat. One boat came idling in close enough for conversation, and a man said, "Tough bite out here today, eh, boys?"

We had to work for them, as anglers say -- if you can call it work when you're sitting in the sun occasionally flicking a jig overboard and twitching it now and then. Work? We'll take it.

But clearly, the cold front that sat on northern Minnesota the past few days had the walleyes in a semi-funk.

"For a lake that has an awful lot of walleyes, they're playing a game," Neustrom said.

He knew why. The water temperature had dropped almost 10 degrees from a week earlier. The same had happened on Lake Winnibigoshish, he said.

"The water temp on Winnie was 58 a week ago," Neustrom said. "It was 49 yesterday."

A guide he knew, fishing on Winnie on Saturday, said the water temperature was just 51. The angler had caught no fish by mid-morning.


We kept at it until midday, trying to find fish under the 18- to 26-inch protected slot limit on Leech to keep for supper. We had five in the boat by noon, and we had released a 22-incher and a couple of 25-inchers, too.

All of them came on the small jigs and shiners, most in 7 to 11 feet of water.

We scratched out as many as we did because Neustrom wouldn't let us sit on uncooperative fish. We must have moved a dozen times in four hours.

Yep, we worked for them.

Under clear skies and a potent sun, it was some very pleasant opening-day work.

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