Get ready, get set…FISH!

by Nick Wognum

The 2004 Minnesota fishing season is finally upon us. The wait is over, it’s time to go fishing. <BR><BR>With the latest possible date for an opener, all areas (including Pipestone on Basswood) are open for fishing and the DNR fish guy in Tower expects good things for the 2004 season.<BR><BR>“Right now we have had good natural reproduction in a lot of our lakes in the mid to late 1990s and also in 2001,” said Joe Geis, the Ely area DNR fisheries supervisor. “So the walleye population in most of our lakes are high because we have had several strong year classes.”<BR><BR>Fisherman looking to have their rod bent by the shaking head of a walleye will hope to tie into the 1994 and 1995 class.<BR><BR>“Most lakes had either good 1994 or good 1995 classes and some had both,” said Geis. “Those walleyes should be up in the mid 20s by now. And 1997 was a real strong class and 1998 was pretty good in quite a few lakes. Depending on growth rates those walleyes would be on the order of 17 inches and in lakes with better growth rates they could be 21, 22 and maybe even 23 inches.” <BR><BR>Geis said even the 2001 class, which is shaping up to be a bumper class, could find itself on stringers this season. <BR><BR>“Where we have good growth those walleyes could be 13 to 14 inches and even in lakes with slower growth they would be 11 to 12 inches,” said Geis.<BR><BR>So what makes for a good year class? Geis said there are a number of puzzle pieces that have to fall into place.<BR><BR>“There are a whole lot of environmental factors that have to fit together. Generally for good reproduction in the spring you need a gradual warming of water temperatures during the period when the eggs are incubating to get the best hatch.<BR><BR>“Then you have to have zooplankton for fry to feed on as soon as they hatch and an abundance of forage fish. Some years when we have had cool springs we have real poor production. Or when there are cool periods in June as the walleyes are in the early development stages and there is an inadequate supply of zooplankton or other forage, the walleyes don’t do well.”<BR><BR>How big the walleye fingerlings are as they go into the winter season is a key factor. Here size matters over quantity.<BR><BR>“The bigger the walleye fingerling are over the winter, that will determine your class strength as well,” said Geis. <BR><BR>Walleyes should be done spawning in most area lakes and probably have been done for some time. The exceptions would be lakes that had a late ice out or colder water temperatures.<BR><BR>Northern pike fishing should be good as well. Here it’s high water levels in the spring that help make for a stronger year class.<BR><BR>“Northern pike preferred spawning habitat is flooded marsh grass and when we have high water levels there’s more flooded vegetation,” said Geis. <BR><BR>He said 2001 was a good high water year but that those fish would be fairly small yet.<BR><BR>“Typically we see most lakes have a good reproduction on a regular basis and good variety sizes of northern pike,” said Geis. “We see up to the mid-20s for size in most of our nets on a lot of our lakes.”<BR><BR>Fisherman will not be able to keep any northern pike between 24 and 36 inches on a number of area lakes. Also, while the bag limit remains at three, only one pike over 36 inches can be kept. <BR><BR>This rule applies to Basswood, Vermilion, Birch, Farm, Garden, South Farm, White Iron and the first 4.8 miles of the North Kawishiwi River from Farm Lake to the long portage. <BR><BR>“Those special regulations have a purpose and that is to maintain or improve the quality of northern pike in those lakes, which all have a history of northern pike. They are all larger lakes that have the potential to produce trophy size fish,” said Geis. <BR><BR>Bass fisherman should expect good fishing as well. Unlike southern parts of the state, the bass season opens May 15 up here.<BR><BR>“Electrofishing is the best means we have for sampling bass and we don’t do electrofishing on too many lakes. But again, 1997 was a good year class for smallmouth and those fish should be on the order of 12 to 15 inches long,” said Geis.<BR><BR>The north country is not the perfect habitat for rapid growth of bass, so it takes a long time for big smallies to reach trophy size.<BR><BR>“The bass in the 2001 year class are pretty good but they’re only five or six inches long right now,” said Geis. <BR><BR>Lake trout fisherman will be out on Burntside and Snowbank as the opener gets underway, looking to catch an elusive trout up in the shallows before the fish retreat to deeper waters as the temps go up.<BR><BR>“I would expect to see pretty good fishing on both of those lakes early. However, Burntside with a an abundant smelt forage can make it a little tougher to catch trout,” said Geis.<BR><BR>The only good news in the Burntside smelt population is that they appear to have reached a population where their growth is being stunted.<BR><BR>Geis said netting results show a maximum length of five inches for smelt, with many of them slipping through the smallest holes in the gill nets. <BR><BR>“If you look in the stomachs of lake trout caught in Burntside you’ll see smelt that are only two to two and a half inches long,” said Geis.<BR><BR>The late opener this year means there are no areas out of bounds for fishermen. In the past, Pipestone and Pike Bay on Lake Vermilion have been closed, as well as the Stony River area on Birch Lake. <BR><BR>“We don’t have any delayed openers and that is due to the combination of ice out being a little earlier than normal and the opener being as late as it can be,” said Geis.<BR><BR>The Minnesota fishing opener is set up so there are two full weekends of fishing prior to the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. With Memorial Day falling on May 31, this is the latest opener possible. <BR><BR>But that does not mean that fishing will be better on opener than on the next couple of weekends.<BR><BR>“The water stayed colder than we thought it might be by opener and with cooler water the fish are going to be a little less active,” said Geis. “As the water warms up fish tend to get more aggressive. A lot of times the second weekend and Memorial weekend the fish are more aggressive than they are on opener.”<BR><BR>But with the number of people ready to go fishing on opener, Geis knows there will be a lot of fish reeled in. <BR><BR>“I’m sure some people will do well and other people not so well. It’s a matter of finding the fish and it’s a matter of trying different stuff. “A lot of people like to try shallow water on opening weekend but there are fish deep as well.”<BR><BR>Geis has good advice no matter what time of year it is.<BR><BR>“Keep moving around and trying different spots and different techniques,” he said.<BR><BR>Cold water is also the recipe for disaster, but there is one thing anglers can do to help protect themselves.<BR><BR>“We really encourage people to wear their personal flotation devices. If somebody goes in the water accidentally they’re going to be wishing they had their PFD on because hypothermia is a real concern this time of year,” said Geis.<BR><BR>The other piece of advice is to help protect the fishery by keeping smaller fish and letting the big ones go.<BR><BR>“By using selective harvest and keeping smaller fish to eat, people should release the medium and larger fish because they are the spawning stock,” said Geis. <BR><BR>For those who do try their luck on the lakes and find success, bring a camera along and take a picture. Then be sure to enter the fish for the North Country Angler’s Catch & Release division. <BR><BR>Anglers can register their Catch & Release entry at any Check In Station. Just measure the fish and let it go quickly, reporting the species and length to any North Country Angler Check In Station. We will list all Catch & Release gamefish registered in the North Country Angler. <BR><BR>Be sure to register your catches at the Check In Stations listed in these pages. Cash awards are given every six weeks for the biggest walleye, bass, pike and trout taken. <BR><BR>All entries in the North Country Angler Contest are included in the end of the year drawing for a three-day, two night stay at Zup’s Fishing Camp. <BR><BR>Next week, and throughout the summer, the Angler will carry the fishing news of all the big fish reported by the Check In Stations around the Ely area. Watch for the inside info on who caught the big ones, on what bait and where they were taken. <BR><BR>Good luck!<BR><BR>