Fishing guides weigh in on strategies for the upcoming Minnesota walleye opener

May 4—When it comes to the Minnesota Fishing Opener, no two years are the same, and that is certainly the case again this year.

Minnesota's 2024 Fishing Opener is Saturday, May 11.

After a weird winter with above-average temperatures and very little snowfall, spring has been equally strange, proceeding in fits and starts with an abundance of wind and persistent cool temperatures. That's despite earlier-than-normal ice-out dates on most lakes across the state that teased anglers into thinking an early spring was on tap.

Still, hope springs eternal — as the old saying goes — when it comes to the Minnesota Fishing Opener. With that in mind, we talked with a cross-section of Minnesota fishing guides to get their thoughts on the upcoming opener and how they'll approach the day.

Here's what they had to say.

A hall of fame fishing guide,

both in Minnesota and as a member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, has seen pretty much everything Mother Nature has to offer in his four decades as proprietor of Minnesota Fishing Connections guide service.

With the possible exception of a few lakes in far northern Minnesota, walleyes are done spawning, but it's hard to say what lingering cool water temperatures will mean, come opening day, Neustrom says.

"It's hard to predict right now because of the weather," Neustrom told the Herald on Monday, April 29. "Today right now, it's 34 degrees here. We're not looking at much warmer weather until the weekend but then, what is warmer — 60 degrees.

"So, the water temperature isn't really warming up much."

Pitching a jig and minnow or a jig and plastic and working it with a slow cadence back to the boat will be the "go-to deal" on the inland lakes he fishes in northern Minnesota, Neustrom says. Look for walleyes on the first break line from shore where the water drops off and keep on the move, Neustrom suggests; finding bait fish will be crucial.

"With our lakes around here, we kind of watch for the spottail shiner spawn," Neustrom said. "That usually happens around that 50-degree mark — 48 to 52 degrees."

Going into May, water temperatures were still in the mid-40s, he said.

"I tell you what — when I see that spottail shiners are moving in shallow (water), and gulls are crashing them, I'm going right in there after walleyes," Neustrom said. "That's where they're going to be."

Neustrom, who also serves on the board of


a nonprofit foundation that works on behalf of anglers and fishing industry stakeholders across the state, says he doesn't anticipate any problems finding bait, which was a challenge in some areas because of late springs in 2022 and 2023.

"I know the availability of bait is good right now," Neustrom said, adding he recently talked with Marshall Koep of Urbank Live Bait in Clitherall, Minnesota, one of the state's top providers of chubs and sucker minnows.

"He said that most of the guys in the area and most of the guys in the state are saying the bait situation is going to be much better this year than it was the last two years," Neustrom said.

Jason Durham of Park Rapids, Minnesota, teaches kindergarten in Nevis, Minnesota, and is beginning his 33rd season as a fishing guide and owner of

Go-Fish Guide Service,

focusing on lakes in the Park Rapids area.

If he targets walleyes in his area for the opener, Durham says he'll focus on sandy areas with "really shallow water," especially if fishing any of the abundant small lakes the area has to offer.

The lakes typically don't have much structure, he says, so sand attracts walleyes to spawn.

"These areas can be as small as somebody's private beach, so we're only talking about water that's less than 8 feet deep," he said. "Whether it's pre-spawn, during the spawn or post-spawn, they're going to be right around those general areas."

Durham says he'll often cast out a live bait rig for early season walleyes and let it sit, similar to the technique anglers use to fish catfish on the Red River, though on a smaller scale, with lighter weights and smaller hooks.

Because early season walleyes tend to be shallow, Durham says the technique also works well for anglers limited to fishing from shore.

"I love shore fishing this time of year, and I love that people who don't have boats can go and have really great success walleye fishing this time of year," he said. "There's times where I'll even put on a pair of waders and find a sandy area — there's a lot of them around here — and just stand on the shoreline and cast that out there and just barely drag it back toward where I'm standing."

Oddly enough, Durham says he'll use a leech or a nightcrawler, rather than the shiners many northern Minnesota anglers rely on almost exclusively for early season walleyes.

"A lot of people might argue you don't start using nightcrawlers until after the Fourth of July," he said. "Well, that was a long time ago, and now, people use nightcrawlers all the time."

A jig and a shiner is always an option, too, of course.

"That's always a productive way to fish, but what I like more about the live bait rig is it just lets your live bait freely swim," Durham said. "Whereas, if you have a jig and a minnow, it's going to keep that minnow pinned to the bottom, no matter what."

A Michigan native, Ben Barrus of Roosevelt, Minnesota, is beginning his fourth season of

guiding on Lake of the Woods,

both as a charter boat driver for Border View Lodge and with his own boat, but he's seen some real extremes on the big lake in those four years.

That includes near-drought conditions in 2021 and widespread flooding across the border country in the spring and summer of 2022. This year, the U.S. portion of Lake of the Woods has been ice-free for more than a week, and the Rainy River is low — so far, at least — with minimal current.

Ice fishing reports during the winter of 2023-24 were excellent, overall, and the spring catch-and-release walleye season on the Rainy River produced an abundance of big fish.

Barrus says he expects more of the same, come opening day.

In addition, test-netting surveys

conducted last September by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

showed above-average numbers of both walleyes and their smaller cousin, the sauger, in Lake of the Woods.

"I think, overall, I've got high expectations for fishing," Barrus said. "Opener's basically a holiday up there, so there's going to be a lot of people, and the boat traffic might be the only thing putting (walleyes) in a negative mood.

"I don't see the weather or the water temps really negatively affecting any of the fish. I've got high hopes for the opener, as always."

Opening weekend on Lake of the Woods is generally a jig-a-thon, with boats by the dozens anchored or spot-locked with their trolling motors along the channel in Four-Mile Bay at the mouth of the Rainy River, or in 8 to 20 feet of water in various locations along the South Shore. From there, it's just a matter of tying on a three-eighths or one-quarter ounce jig and slowly working it off the bottom a few inches, keeping a tight line on the drop.

Frozen emerald shiners tend to be the go-to bait of choice, more so even than live bait.

"It's jigging season — it's no secret," Barrus said. "Mostly just anchoring or spot-lock if you've got that capability (with your trolling motor)."

Give him a choice, and Barrus says drifting with a jig is his favorite technique, but keeping the speed below 1 mph is crucial, especially with the cold water early in the year.

"That's a tremendous way to cover water and locate fish," Barrus said. "And then, once you find some active or biting fish, then you can toss the anchor or spot-lock on them and vertical jig them."

Jason Freed of Baxter, Minnesota, teaches social studies and coaches football at Brainerd High School and guides for

Leisure Outdoor Adventures,

targeting lakes such as Leech and Winnibigoshish and, later in the summer, Lake Vermilion in northeast Minnesota.

Water temperature will dictate where he fishes opening day, Freed says.

"You've got to really just focus on water temperatures and finding that warmest water," Freed said. "When you can find that little bit warmer water, you typically are going to find those fish."

Wind — within reason — is also a plus, he says. That's especially true on Leech Lake with its clear water. An "ideal day" on Leech Lake, Freed says, will have a "nice northwest wind blowing into some spots," a favorable condition for long-lining a jig tipped with a minnow or a shiner.

"If you've ever been on Leech, it's all about wind, and that creates currents and pushes bait, and so you always want to find those things," he said.

Opening day, finding water that's 50 degrees or more will be a good starting point in north-central Minnesota, Freed says.

"Water temperatures, wind, transition areas, sand and grass type stuff, and find the warmest water," he said. "That's typically going to be what I would do for my game plan."

Invasive zebra mussels have made Leech Lake even clearer, Freed says, and that has made walleyes even more "boat shy." That's where technology such as forward-facing sonar and side imaging comes into play, he says.

"I find myself using my electronics to find the fish and then cast to those fish," Freed said.

"What's been really interesting is the amount of walleyes that we saw in, say, 12 feet of water that were 4 to 5 feet off the bottom. That was a huge eye-opener for me because it made me wonder, 'Is this something new or have these fish always been like this?' "

Before the emergence of today's whiz-bang technology, seeing those suspended walleyes would have been difficult.

"I don't always think like a fish, but for me it's changed my approach," Freed said. "Now, it's being able to catch them, whether it's throwing a jig at them or a slip bobber and a leech, a slip bobber and a minnow (or) casting a paddle tail at them."

With the possible exception of deer season, no event on Minnesota's outdoors calendar is more deeply steeped in tradition than the fishing opener.

Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, promotes the big lake as part of his job, but opening weekend sees him participating in a family fishing gathering that's not to be missed.

"We have a family tradition of a family fishing tournament," Henry said. "We probably have 15 people in it. And we've had this going on for more than three decades. It goes way back ... probably four decades now."

Neustrom, the Grand Rapids fishing guide and Hall of Fame angler, says the Minnesota Fishing Opener is without rival as outdoor "happenings" go.

"When you compare it to everywhere else, I've been over in Wisconsin for their opener, which happens (May 4)," Neustrom said. "I haven't been there in several years, but it's nothing compared to Minnesota."

The Minnesota Fishing Opener, he says, "is like a cult."

"The traffic starts, everybody's excited, you go into a gas station or bait shop, it's so fun," Neustrom said. "They've got a lot of different videos and YouTubes about the bait shops in the Grand Rapids-Deer River area. You go in there Saturday morning or Friday afternoon (before opener) and the guys dipping bait are all wet from splashing and getting (minnows) into the air bags.

"I mean, it's just one of those things. It's exciting. It's been like that for decades and decades, and I think Minnesota really shows off who we are.

"And we are the State of Fishing. That's what we are — we are the State of Fishing."