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Walleye forecast: Right on schedule

Spring started slowly with an early April cold snap, but conditions are shaping up for decent fishing when Minnesota's walleye season opens Saturday.

According to Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, the ice as of May 1 was out on most of Minnesota's lakes except for a few in the far northern part of the state.

It might seem late, he says, but things actually are pretty much on schedule.

"I would not describe this as a late spring in any sense of the word," Drewes said. "It's pretty much, despite the ups and downs, right on track in terms of ice-out and spawning."

Barring an extreme cold snap, Drewes said, opening-day water temperatures should be 50 to 55 degrees on many bodies of water in northwest and north-central Minnesota. That means walleyes should be recovered from the rigors of spawning and ready to cooperate.

"Ice-out dates were right on normal, and the word from south to north is the lakes are warming rapidly," Drewes said.

Good old days

These are good days for walleye lovers in Minnesota. Large lakes such as Winnibigoshish, Upper Red and Lake of the Woods have excellent walleye populations, Drewes says, and Leech Lake is recovering nicely from a period of low reproduction that prompted the DNR to stock the lake with more than 7 million fry in 2005 and 22 million fry in 2006.

Federal sharpshooters also killed nearly 6,300 cormorants on Leech over the past two years and will be shooting more this summer.

Leech Lake is host to this year's Governor's Fishing Opener.

"We're pretty optimistic" about Leech, Drewes said. "It has two strong year-classes and a fair number of larger fish. The 2005 year-class are almost a year ahead in terms of their growth rates, and so they're 13- to 14-inch fish and fairly abundant.

"A lot of openers, that's a pretty dominant-size fish so we're hoping there's going to be a lot of activity."

Meanwhile, medium-sized lakes such as Bemidji, Cormorant near Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Otter Tail Lake also are in very good shape.

"These are the good, old days of walleye fishing -- they really are," Drewes said.

Opener techniques

It's also looking like a normal opener from an angler's standpoint.

Duane Peterson, vice president of Northland Tackle in Bemidji, is a veteran of -- well, let's just say a lot of walleye openers over the years. That time on the water has taught him a few things about opening-day walleyes.

Early in the year, Peterson says, anglers shouldn't be afraid to fish extremely shallow water. Whether trolling, drifting or casting, keep the presentation slow, he says, and if there's a pack of boats crowding a certain area, they're probably there for a reason.

Don't be afraid to drop a line nearby.

"My advice is, commonly, we want to avoid those packs, but if you're not catching fish, you better join them," Peterson said. "There's a reason those boats are there, and it's generally because there's a school of walleyes there."

Peterson says low water levels could pose a challenge this year in some areas. The conditions could affect access at shallow water ramps, Peterson says, so anglers should plan accordingly.

Weather impact

Weather always is the wild card for the opening day of walleye season. Peterson says he'll be out regardless of the forecast, but if it's cold and windy, he won't be at the boat ramp at the crack of dawn.

"I simply prepare for it and expect bad weather and hope for the best," Peterson said. "If it's cold, I'll hit the water at 9, and I'll fish from 9 to 3. One of the mistakes a lot of guys make in inclement weather, particularly early in the season, is they get out there too early. Fishing is better midday early in the year -- the sun's out, the water warms up -- and I don't think you have to be on the water at daybreak to catch them."

Even if the weather is bad, Peterson says, a bit of meteorological adversity is part of the opening-day experience.

"One of the things about the tradition of fishing, I think, is living within the elements and tolerating what Mother Nature throws at you," Peterson said. "We all like the sun and dead calm, but there's something to be said for the elements."

There's also something to be said for tradition. And on that count, few events can rival Minnesota's walleye opener.

According to the DNR's Drewes, the common estimate is that 1 million anglers will wet a line Saturday. With a statewide population of about 6 million, that means nearly 17 percent of Minnesotans go fishing opening day.

"There's nothing that 17 percent of the population does on the same day other than sleep and breathe," Drewes said. "It's amazing. It's steeped in tradition dating back many decades."

The tradition resumes Saturday.

Welcome to summer.