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Fish, fishermen, fish managers all play waiting game

Early last Saturday morning, after my young Labrador and I had taken our ritual morning walk, I brewed up a Thermos-filling pot of coffee, loaded Bella into her crate in the car, and the two of us took a reconnaissance drive to check out ice conditions on the lakes in the area we call home.

There was not a great deal of suspense in this, because I knew that the main body of all these lakes would still be icebound. Less than a week before this, there were ice fishermen on several of these lakes, some then holding 18 or more inches of ice.

But there might be places along the shorelines of these lakes, or where inlets, outlets or connecting channels have some current, where we might see open water and take some hope that the ice will be retreating and eventually disappear.

Like a suitor who hopes for any positive sign from the object of his affection, the committed angler finds hope to be the most important item in his tackle box.

If human brain activity could somehow generate sound, the brains of Minnesota anglers (yes, we have them) would be generating a persistent hum, a buzz of uncertainty and doubt as we contemplate the likelihood that the lakes where we traditionally open the fishing season will be motionless and gray on May 11, rather than wave-tossed and blue.

Local outdoor media, meaning the Minnesota-produced radio shows and the newspapers that carry outdoor news, are fixated on this countdown. It is a countdown that is as important to anglers as the New Year’s Eve countdown is to the party animals in New York’s Times Square.

My Saturday morning drive happened to coincide with one of these radio shows, and — true to expectations — the ice-out topic dominated the show.

The general consensus among the guides and resort operators being interviewed, and echoed in what we’re hearing from just about all sources these days, is that many of the popular fishing lakes in the northern half of the state will not be fully open by May 11. Depending on who you talk to, that word “many” could easily be replaced with the word “most.”

The solution to ice-locked lakes on opening day is both obvious and problematic. The obvious part is to find, and fish, the water that IS open. That might mean fishing lakes farther south, or fishing open rivers if you are committed to fishing in more northerly areas.

The problematic part is that you may be fishing waters that are less familiar — perhaps totally foreign — to you, and waters where you also are likely to encounter crowded angling conditions.

While some anglers may stay home and wait for their favorite lakes to open, it’s a better bet that most will look for options and find a way to fish. With so many anglers all hungry for a slice of a smaller pie, the portions available are likely to be smaller, too.

In angling terms, that means a high probability of congestion at boat launching sites and competition out on the water. If you like a party atmosphere on opening day, this year could be one you will relish. If you don’t, it might be an opener you would just as soon forget; unless, of course, you score well on the fish, despite the challenges.

While Bella and I were making our Saturday morning circuit of the nearby lakes, we stopped along the shore of one of the more popular ones, where a pond-size swath of open water always appears early, thanks to inflow from a channel that connects to a much smaller “rice lake” nearby. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries crew was just finishing up their morning’s work of fin-marking northern pike, which had been intercepted by a DNR trap net while on their way upstream to spawn.

The purpose of this DNR project is to mark the northerns with fin clips so they can be recognized when some are recaptured at a later time in deeper water survey netting. This mark-and-recapture census technique is common in fisheries management, and in this case will be used to estimate the lake’s northern pike abundance, age structure and growth.

Unlike the major egg stripping operations the DNR uses to supply state hatcheries that produce walleye fry and fingerlings, there is relatively little egg taking from northern pike. Only a few of these pike were stripped of eggs, according to the DNR manager overseeing the operation. The eggs will be shipped to a hatchery in southern Minnesota and ultimately used to restock some of the shallower lakes that commonly experience winter-kill during long, snowy winters like this one.

Besides the late thaw’s delaying things for anglers, walleye egg-taking has been off-schedule, too, the manager told me. One nearby river where eggs are gathered has been too high and debris-filled for the operation to begin.

But the DNR still expects to collect more than 600 million walleye eggs when all is said and done this year. The majority of those that hatch successfully will be stocked as fry, but roughly 30 percent will go into rearing ponds to be raised to fingerling size — about three inches long — before stocking.

Assuming anglers can find open water, what will the fish be doing, and will they be cooperative? Will the males be aggressive and the walleye bite a good one? Will spawning be “dead-on” and the fish tight-lipped?

About all that will be ventured here is that the fish are likely to be behind schedule. That, and the fact that there will be success rates that range from limits to empty stringers, and everything in between.

But it’s almost certain to be an opener different enough from the norm that it won’t be forgotten.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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