Renowned Minnesota fishing guide Jeff Sundin says he’ll be spending the first few days of the open water season in the boat with his wife.

That would normally be considered a good thing. But it also means that his usual paying clientele are staying away under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and state directives.

“The CoranaCrisis has already killed my first week of guide trips, so I plan to do a lot of experimental fishing with my wife,’’ said Sundin, of Grand Rapids.

A nice walleye caught on the St. Louis River in Duluth on opening day, 2018. File / News Tribune
A nice walleye caught on the St. Louis River in Duluth on opening day, 2018. File / News Tribune

Like many Minnesotans, Sundin is impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, with many people unsure if or how far they should go to fish, even though they legally can go. But, always the optimist — pretty much a prerequisite of successful fishing guides — Sundin predicts a good, post-spawn walleye bite after lakes across much of the state lost their ice early or just about average.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“I’ve checked Leech, Winnie, Bowstring and dozens of small lakes; all are on track for a fairly routine opener. Judging by the current (warming trend) forecast, I’d say that the stars are aligned to produce a post spawn fishing opener in this region,’’ Sundin said. “Smaller, male fish will likely still be shallow, but I’d bet females will be migrating away from shorelines and toward deeper points and shoreline related structure.”

Bill Heig, owner of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish, agreed that many walleyes will have spawned and likely left their spawning areas by the opener.

“Fish movement will depend on water temperatures between now and opener. It looks like a warming trend so fish will be well out onto Winnie’’ from their spawning areas up in Cut Foot Sioux and rivers, Heig said. “Some years we get cold water algae blooms which affect depth and distribution of walleyes, these changes can occur daily. If it's clear, look deep early morning, late evening. If we get a good bloom, look shallow in the traditional opening locations.”

With the ice off most Minnesota lakes at about the average date, look for fish to be in their usual post-spawn locations. The exception is big lakes near the Ontario border which may still hold some ice on the May 9 opener. File / News Tribune
With the ice off most Minnesota lakes at about the average date, look for fish to be in their usual post-spawn locations. The exception is big lakes near the Ontario border which may still hold some ice on the May 9 opener. File / News Tribune

Greg Clusiau of Keewatin, who may fish more than any other human, already has been out catching a few suckers for the smoker and trying for some crappies in the shoreline shallows of small lakes.

“I think it’s going to be a decent opener. The weather is warming up good and there are already panfish in the shallows. I think it’s going to be pretty normal,’’ he said. “I think pitching little jigs with shiners should be good for walleyes.”

Minnesota is encouraging anglers to go fishing even during the COVID-19 pandemic but to do so as close to home as possible, within their own community, not to travel far to do so, fish only with family members and not to gather in groups. Lodges and motels remain open although all campgrounds remain closed. The state also is keeping dine-in restaurants and taverns closed until at least May 18.

Anglers will head out across Minnesota lakes for the May 9 fishing opener but are being asked to keep their social distance from others - at boat landings, gas stations and bait shops -  with the COVID-19 pandemic still spreading across the state.  File / News Tribune
Anglers will head out across Minnesota lakes for the May 9 fishing opener but are being asked to keep their social distance from others - at boat landings, gas stations and bait shops - with the COVID-19 pandemic still spreading across the state. File / News Tribune

Clusiau often starts the walleye season on Upper Red Lake, but he says that anxious anglers may make that a crowded mess this year. He’s predicting that pent-up demand will send throngs of anglers out on Saturday despite COVID-19.

“Oh, people will go for sure… I think it’s going to be hard to social distance up there,” he said. “Until you’re out on the lake.”

Instead Clusiau might try a local lake, not caring if it's a walleye or something else on the end of the line “just anything to get the string stretched.”

Border lakes holding ice

Ice-out started more than a week early in southern Minnesota back in March but slowed noticeably as it moved north. By the time it hit the Northland, it was pretty much right on schedule. Big Sandy Lake near McGregor, which has a whopping 90 years of records, went out April 20 this year, one day ahead of the median date. Mille Lacs went out April 26, one day later than the long-term median date since 1950. Pokegama near Grand Rapids lost its ice on April 26, a day ahead of the median date of the past 58 years. Big Winni lost its ice April 24, two days ahead of the long-term average. And Leech Lake officially was ice-free on April 29, one day later than average.

The outliers, as is often the case, are the big lakes along the Minnesota-Ontario border. Lake of the Woods on average loses its ice May 3, Rainy Lake on May 4, Gunflint Lake on May 6 and Greenwood Lake in Cook County on May 7, the last in the state. All still had varying ice cover as of Thursday.

Bill Berg, owner of Seagull Creek Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, said it’s going to be nip-and-tuck whether his local lakes like Seagull and Saganaga are fully open by May 9. As of mid-week, Berg said there was still considerable ice on all the lakes and even still some snow in the woods in some areas.

“If the ice goes out it will be right at opener, or just after for the bigger lakes. And that could be about the same for smaller lakes,’’ said Berg, who has probably caught more 30-plus-inch walleyes than any other Northlander. “It is looking like a late opener and with that walleyes will be in their normal spawning areas and those areas could be some great fishing for a while. But a lot of those areas are protected (closed to fishing early in the season) and some areas that are (open) are very small areas.”

Berg said fishing for lake trout should be very good with fish near the surface and easier to catch without heavy gear. But he said he’s expecting a very quiet start to the season on the Gunflint Trail thanks to COVID-19.

“I think, for us up here it is a good year to have a late ice spring and a slow start to this new time,’’ Berg noted.

Walleye will become legal to keep starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday May 9. Consult the DNR fishing regulations synopsis for rules for specific lakes and rivers.  File / News Tribune.
Walleye will become legal to keep starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday May 9. Consult the DNR fishing regulations synopsis for rules for specific lakes and rivers. File / News Tribune.

Around Duluth

Jarrid Houston, local fishing guide and the News Tribune’s weekly fishing columnist, said he plans to fish the St. Louis River in the heart of the Twin Ports for the Minnesota opener. He will start around Spirit Lake and look for narrower areas where fish funnel through.

“Then, depending on bite, slowly working our way toward top of Spirit Lake and Mud Lake and up river mostly between Oliver and Water Street,’’ he said, noting he expects the post-spawn fish to be spread out — many fish still upriver but bigger females already headed back out toward Lake Superior.

Houston said he plans a combination of jigging and trolling spinners with crawlers. And while it may be hard to find quiet waters on the river if the usual opening day crowds show up, Houston said give those places a shot.

“Spreading out is huge and tackling water that has not been fished is key,” he said.

Many anglers heading out on the May 9 Minnesota fishing opener will be hoping for a few of these - a nice keeper walleye. File / News Tribune
Many anglers heading out on the May 9 Minnesota fishing opener will be hoping for a few of these - a nice keeper walleye. File / News Tribune

Tim Wagner at Hi-Banks Resort on Fish Lake said the ice went out last week, slightly later than normal. But he said the lake should warm up significantly this week and he’s predicting a “normal” opener with walleyes in the usual spots.

Wagner’s seasonal campground is booked solid, and open under state guidelines, as are all his cabins.

“We’re full for the opener,’’ Wagner said. “The only thing closed as of now is the bar. But we can still do take out (food) and off-sale.”

Curbside bait service, no minnow shortage yet

Bait dealers and shops across the region so far report no repeat of last year’s minnow shortage. That happened when many small lakes and ponds used to raise minnows froze deep, causing winter kill.

“I’m not hearing any issues so far this year,’’ said John Chalstrom, owner of Chalstroms Bait just outside Duluth.

If you want to avoid the crowds, however, get your bait and license early.

Chalstrom said he’s still deciding how to handle the rush of customers that will come just before and on opening weekend. He said he may use a one-way system to keep people in a single file line, in one door and out another, to keep them socially distanced while in the store. He’s also providing curbside service for people who call ahead.

“Some of our customers have called in and given us their credit card number and then we have a runner bring the bait out to their car. We can do curbside service if that’s what people want… We’ve done it for fishing licenses too. People give us their license number and we can do it all for them,’’ Chalstrom said. “We’ll do what we can to keep our customers safe and happy.”

You can also buy your license online at dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/fishing/ or call 888-665-4236.

DNR docks going in

DNR Parks and Trails crews finally got the go-ahead to get to work in recent weeks and they have been scurrying to install docks and repair boat landings. Docks went in last week in the Duluth area, including on the St. Louis River and Fish, Island and Whiteface lakes. Crews were slated to be in Lake County and Cook County this week, assuming the ice goes out, said Kevin Johnson, area Parks and Trails supervisor in Two Harbors.

A DNR employee installed a floating dock at the Abbott Road boat landing on Island Lake near Duluth on Thursday. Crews are working fast to get as many docks in as possible before the May 9 Minnesota fishing opener.  Minnesota DNR photo.
A DNR employee installed a floating dock at the Abbott Road boat landing on Island Lake near Duluth on Thursday. Crews are working fast to get as many docks in as possible before the May 9 Minnesota fishing opener. Minnesota DNR photo.

Some parts of Minnesota, including the Brainerd area, saw heavier winter damage at landings so docks and ramps might not be ready for the opener. No matter where you’re headed, it might be a good idea to bring along a pair of hip boots or waders just in case.

Areas closed to fishing to protect spawning walleyes

Cross River from the Gunflint Trail to Gunflint Lake, through May 22

Junco Creek from above County Road 57 into Devil Track Lake, through May 22.

Little Gunflint Lake and channel into North Lake, through May 31.

Saganaga Falls, where the Granite Rivers enters Saganaga Lake, through May 31.

Sea Gull River, from Sea Gull Lake through Gull Lake to Saganaga Lake, through May 22.

The St. Louis River, upstream from the Highway 23 bridge to the Fond du Lac dam, through May 18.

A reminder that open season for bass on the St. Louis River does not begin until May 23.

A reminder that Mille Lacs Lake is catch-and-release only for walleye this summer, with no walleye fishing allowed in July.

Minnesota DNR COVID-19 fishing recommendations

When hitting the water, know the DNR’s COVID-19 outdoor recreation guidelines and practice the following to protect yourselves and others:

  • Maintain social distance of at least 6 feet. This includes places such as fuel stations and docks and means no beaching or tying up to other boats.

  • Boat only with people in your immediate household.

  • Boat close to home. Travel to and from the water access site without making other stops.

  • When fueling, wash your hands as you would when fueling a car. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry. Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

  • When launching and loading your boat, give people ahead of you plenty of time and space to finish launching or loading before you approach.

  • Keep in mind water-access site conditions may be different than in previous years. DNR-managed accesses are open, but spring maintenance is not completed, meaning there is probably no dock on site.

  • If you have been diagnosed with, or are exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (including fever, cough, or difficulty breathing) stay home. This self-isolation period should extend for at least seven days after the illness begins and include 72 hours of being fever-free without using fever-reducing medications and resolution of other symptoms.

  • Know what’s open. To see what DNR-managed sites are available, see the DNR’s COVID-19 website or call the DNR information center at 651-296-6157 or 888 646-6367.

This story was edited at 11:30 a.m. on May 6 to correct the end date for the fishing closure on the Sea Gull River.