Adam Johnson was at his home near Brainerd, Minn., one recent day — a cool morning surrendering to what would become a glorious spring day — pondering how to spend a few open hours. There is a lot for an outdoorsman to do as the days grow longer and the ice relinquishes its hold. Johnson, for his part, was deciding between organizing his turkey-hunting gear or taking off the cover from his boat to begin the process of making sure it was ready for the rigors of a season on the water.
Had the date been later by a week or two, Johnson’s decision about how to pass the time likely would have been an easy one: Grab a fishing rod, some basic tackle and a handful of night crawlers, and drive to one of the creeks or rivers near his home to fish for suckers. Wait, suckers?
“The fish fight hard and make nice, long runs,” said Johnson, an aquatic biologist. “If you can get into the bigger pods of fish, it can really keep you entertained for quite some time.”
For many Minnesotans, open-water fishing at this time of year is simply something to which they’re looking forward. The walleye-fishing opener, after all, isn’t until May 13 — and for many folks the opener marks their foray onto open water. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a variety of fishing options, including for walleyes, that don’t require anglers to wait until the middle of May to wet a line.
Following are five available to fishermen of every skill level:
Suckers, which slurp food that lives on the bottom, are common in Minnesota. When they’re spawning during April and May, anglers find them in a wide variety of waters. Around his home, Johnson focuses on small creeks, streams and tributaries of the Mississippi River. Along with the latter, he counts the Crow Wing, Nokasippi, and Pine rivers as his favorite spots for targeting suckers.
Johnson keeps gear choices simple: A spinning rod and reel, a hook, and a split-shot or two. He uses night crawlers for bait. Scouting is a big part of finding and catching suckers, and Johnson’s approach is to drive to a few rivers, find a spot close to the water, and start looking for fish. There’s no need for a boat. “I try to focus on the deeper holes because that’s where the fish congregate,” he said. “Four to six feet of water is a pretty major hole for some of these smaller feeder creeks and streams.”
He doesn’t start casting until he sees the greenish-colored fish. Once he does, he casts upstream of them and then lets the current carry his bait toward them. When fish bite, it’s often light, but a hooked sucker will put up a valiant struggle. Some anglers keep suckers and eat them, but Johnson primarily catches and releases them, content simply to spend a spring day chasing one of Minnesota’s most underappreciated fish.
Bluff country trout
The bluff country in southeastern Minnesota is among the state’s most scenic areas, and for many anglers spring wouldn’t be complete without a trip there to wade in creeks and streams and cast for trout. While anglers have been able to catch-and-release trout in the southeast all year, the harvest season kicked off April 15.
With a wide variety of waters from which to choose, newbies should consider heading to one of the streams into which the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocks yearling rainbow trout (fish that are 10 to 13 inches) in the days leading up to the trout fishing opener. Among them are Mill Creek, South Branch of the Root River, and Spring Valley Creek, said Vaughn Snook, avid about trout and the DNR’s assistant area fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro. In addition to rainbows, fishermen in the southeast can find brook and brown trout, too.
“We’ve got a lot of trout out there right now,” Snook said.
Some fishermen prefer fly-fishing, while others — especially those newer to the trout-fishing game — lean toward traditional spinning rods and reels. Night crawlers are popular as live bait, and small spinners are good choices for artificial. Snook has a reminder for anglers: the need for a trout stamp in addition to a regular fishing license.
The Lanesboro fisheries office website (bit.ly/lanetrout) includes links to stream maps and other information about trout fishing in the southeast.
Monsters of the north
Lake of the Woods may be most well-known for its walleye fishing, but the Rainy River and the area where it enters the massive lake has gained a reputation for catches of a lifetime. And it’s entirely possible that fish will be older than anglers. Lake sturgeon are slow- growing, prehistoric fish that can grow to near 7 feet and weigh upward of 100 pounds. Female lake sturgeon can live as long as 150 years.
While anglers routinely catch huge sturgeon in the Rainy River and where it enters Lake of the Woods, that hasn’t always been the case. Once nearly extirpated because of poor water quality and overfishing, the fish have made a comeback. The lake sturgeon season began Friday, with anglers limited to one fish per calendar year. Other parameters: It must be between 45 and 50 inches, or longer than 75 inches. Harvest season runs until May 7, then picks up from July 1 to Sept. 30.
“We’re seeing a lot more big fish now than we used to,” said Tom Heinrich, DNR large lake fisheries specialist for Lake of the Woods. “In 1990 if you caught a sturgeon longer than 50 inches, you probably got your picture in the paper. Now, nobody even bats an eye for a 60-inch fish. Once you start getting into that 70-inch range, people start looking.”
The fish may be big, but catching them is relatively simple. Fishermen should use heavy rods, reels and line, but the most popular rig is pretty basic — just a heavy sinker and a big hook adorned with a gob of night crawlers. Heinrich advises anglers new to the area to look for concentrations of boats and fish near them.
“It’s not difficult at all,” he said. “And even a small sturgeon is likely to be the biggest fish of your life.”
Many people are drawn to open water the moment the ice goes out. Luckily for them, there are crappies — hard-fighting, fine-tasting panfish that can be found in shallow water throughout the spring. There are many lakes in the metro area with crappies, but few parallel Lake Minnetonka when it comes to opportunities. Almost as soon as the ice leaves the lake, anglers — some from boats, many from shore — begin plying Minnetonka’s abundant bays and channels.
“They’re pretty much in full swing already, and have been since the ice went out,” said Tim Sonenstahl, one of the owners of Wayzata Bait and Tackle. “Typically they’re catching them in five or six feet of water.”
Sonenstahl advised fishermen to focus on the north sides of mud-bottomed bays, where the water is warmest. While crappies will spawn in such areas later on, at this time of year they’re in feeding, Sonenstahl said. As for gear, he recommended a small chartreuse, lime-green or pink jig below a bobber. Minnows and small worms are good baits. Whether by boat or by car, fishermen should move around until they find fish, he said. Anglers who catch a few and bring them home are in for a treat.
“They’re really good to eat this time of year — the meat is nice and firm because they’re coming out of cold water,” Sonenstahl said.
The regular walleye season is a few weeks away, but for anglers who really have to scratch the walleye itch, there is Pool 4 of the Mississippi River. There, the walleye season is open year-round, and mid-April marks one of the best times of the year to catch them. Walleyes run upriver from Lake Pepin and concentrate in the section of river below the dam at Red Wing.
Chris Winchester of 4 Season Sports in Red Wing counted on a recent day about 75 boats in a relatively confined section of the river. On a sunny, warm Saturday, there may be 500 boats out there, he said. As a result, anglers sometimes have to “pack their patience,” Winchester said, but the trade-off is the opportunity to catch big numbers of walleyes with a shot at a true trophy that may weigh 10 pounds or more.
Said Nick Schlesser, DNR large lake fisheries specialist for Lake Pepin: “This time of year has historically been our peak time of year for fishing pressure on Pool 4. When [the fishing] is on, it’s really on.”
Many fishermen tie on jigs and tip them with minnows, Winchester said. Some use plastic bait instead of live bait. There are limited shore-fishing opportunities in Red Wing, but most anglers use boats, he said.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.