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Big lakes likely to be frozen during fishing opener

Local bait shop owners, fishing guides and resort owners seem to be in agreement: It is unlikely that large local lakes will be free of ice for the Saturday, May 11, walleye and northern pike fishing opener, but smaller ones might be more promising.

Leech Lake is the third largest lake entirely within the borders of Minnesota, which also makes it unlikely to have much open water for the 2013 fishing season opener. For Jack Shriver, who depends on the lake as a bait shop owner, fishing guide and ice house rental owner, that’s bad news.

Shriver’s ice houses have been off the lake since late February, and he said his guide service is pretty slow until June.

“On opening week a lot of guys come and they bring their own boats and it’s kind of quiet. About Memorial (Day) weekend you start getting interest. Then in June it picks up even more,” he said.

As a result, Shriver and other bait shop owners depend heavily on bolstered bait sales during fishing season opener.

“Opening weekend for us in the bait business is probably our second biggest, if not our biggest, weekend of the year,” Shriver said. “You just can’t make it back up. So it’s kind of scary.”

Unfortunately, even if ice is off of area lakes by Saturday, local bait shops like Shriver’s Bait in Walker are unlikely to carry a springtime favorite bait — shiner minnows — until later in the season.

“Normally at this time of year live bait is usually the most successful, whether it’s minnows or crawlers or leeches. This time of year is typically mostly minnows, whether they’re fatheads or rainbows or shiners,” said Jim Tuller, owner of Swanson’s Bait and Tackle in Hackensack. “We won’t have shiners because they come out of the larger lakes and you can’t get something that’s under the ice. That’s going to be an issue, but that’s typically what people use this time of year.”

This difficulty is one Shriver and many other bait shop owners are facing as well.

“There’s hardly any bait out there. We’re hoping we can get into a jig and minnow bite right away once we get started and switch into leeches and crawlers, but that’s the unknown this year. There’s nothing coming right now,” Shriver said.

In spite of all this, anglers appear to be stubbornly clinging to tradition and even a little bit of hope concerning local lakes. Shriver’s guide service has been reserved long in advance for this coming weekend, and that reservation was not canceled as of Monday, May 6, though lake conditions could still change that.

“More than likely we’re going to have to cancel,” Shriver said.

Norma Coughlin of Kilworry Resort on Upper Whitefish Lake said her regular yearly customers have yet to cancel their fishing opener reservations.

“Some of them are for two weeks and they would stay, and some of are for the week and I think they are anticipating that by the weekend we will have open water,” she said. “Some are for the weekend and so far they are hanging in there.”

If lakes are still covered in ice Saturday, anglers will have few choices. They’ll have to find smaller lakes with open water or check to see if bays on larger lakes are open.

“I think there’s going to be some small lakes that will (have ice off), but I’m not sure if Pine Mountain’s going to be one of them,” said Dave Sheley of the Backus Corner Store and Gun Shop.

“I believe that birch has a possibility (of being open). I would say that Ten Mile, the main part of the lake will not be open,” said Tuller.

Tuller also suggested that anglers consult their local bait shop owners for up-to-date information about open lakes and suggested that anglers keep an eye on Pleasant Lake, Stony Lake, Webb Lake and other popular, smaller lakes in the area.

“I would just tell people if they have a question to call their local bait shop and get the latest update,” he said. “We have a tendency to be more conservative than some because we want it to be right when people call, but I think that will get you the most recent update as we go through this week and next.”

Another option anglers might consider is the possibility of ice fishing on fishing opener, though DNR officials and bait shop owners urge anglers to have caution.

“There’s been a few (people ice fishing), although there’s a little bit of peril anymore,” Sheley said. “We’re really not recommending it.”

However, if anglers do plan to drill a hole and wet a line this weekend, Shriver said perch fishermen are still relying heavily on wax worms and fathead minnows, which might be important options if local bait shops cannot get shiner minnows soon.

Whatever option anglers choose, they are cautioned that ice conditions are quickly deteriorating. They should take precautions, prepare accordingly and not take unnecessary risks.