The weather and the bite made for a dreamy state fishing opener

Minnesotans jockeyed to launch boats from crowded access points all over the state Saturday as bluebird skies, cool water and mild breezes beckoned them in large numbers to partake in the fishing opener.

The bite was slow in some places and adequate in others, but the elements were universally sublime.

"Everyone's happy," said Robyn Dwight, who fished with her husband, Brian, on Upper Red Lake in Beltrami County. "It's nice just to be able to sit on the lake and relax. There was just enough breeze to rock our boat and put me to sleep."

The two of them caught six walleyes by 10:30 a.m., keeping four. They estimated morning boat traffic on the famous walleye lake at 1,500 to 2,000 vessels.

"People are having to work for them, so it's not a massacre," she said. "But that's a good thing."

On Friday, the day before the opener, the Department of Natural Resources was easily on pace to sell more than 300,000 fishing licenses, about 6% ahead of last year. But by the end of the year, including the ice season, more than 1.4 million people are likely to go fishing in the state. According to the DNR, the average Minnesota angler spends 15 days fishing each year.

In the Alexandria area, conservation officer Mitch Lawler patrolled hotspots like Lake Emily, near Cyrus. Emily has a gravel parking lot that holds about a dozen boat trailers. Lawler counted another 51 trailer rigs parked along adjacent roads.

"Lots of people are out," Lawler said. "People are finding some fish."

A member of the new Marine Unit at the Department of Natural Resources, Lawler said he observed nearly flawless compliance with boat safety laws and fishing regulations. He said smaller walleyes were hitting early in the day, but people were starting to catch keepers by early afternoon in the range of 15 to 16 inches.

This year's special walleye regulation for Mille Lacs Lake doesn't allow harvest until mid-August, but that didn't stop anglers from cramming into the access points early Saturday morning with boats. Conservation officer Joe Scholz worked along the south end before heading up the east side. He witnessed good walleye and bass action before noon, but results between boats were mixed.

There was nothing mixed about the weather, though. "It's gorgeous out here," he said.

This year's Governor's Fishing Opener celebration took place in Lake City, where Gov. Tim Walz caught a smallish walleye soon after he hit the water around 9 a.m. with guide Jason Lorenson.

"The whole weekend has been great," Walz said. "You almost feel guilty it's so nice outside."

Walz fished with state Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park. Murphy also caught a walleye, but Hortman stole the show by hooking a 22-incher that Lorenson netted while being filmed. The fish was released. The group was trolling with bottom bouncers tipped with leeches in the northern reaches of Lake Pepin.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, fishing nearby in another guided boat, caught a 19-incher, Walz said.

Farther south in Albert Lea, several hundred people lined the shores of Fountain Lake, casting and bobber-fishing for walleyes. DNR Conservation Officer Jeremy Henke said the bite was slow and anglers in boats seemed to be doing a little better than those on shore.

"The best I've seen is four walleyes in one boat," Henke said.

He also patrolled Albert Lea Lake, where the bite was even slower than on Fountain.

"Overall it's pretty slow," he said. "But it's a beautiful day and it's a crowd."

Henke patrolled the local lakes just after midnight, when anglers could officially start fishing for walleyes and northern pike at 12:01 a.m.

"The overnight guys did better than the daytime guys," he said.

On Lake Minnetonka, DNR conservation officer Kylan Hill said boat traffic was high with anglers everywhere. By noon, lots of pleasure boats were mixing into the scene under bright sun and "toasty" temps.

Hill didn't see any walleyes being caught by midday, but he said most anglers were fishing successfully for crappies or catching and releasing bass — some as hefty as four pounds. After low water conditions plagued Minnetonka last fall, it was nice to see water levels back to normal, Hill said.

He said conservation officers and sheriff's deputies were seeing "too many" safety violations. Two problem areas were missing life jackets and the absence of throwable flotation devices — two regulations especially important in cold springtime water.

"If you're going out, brush up on the fishing laws, know the bag limits and keep your ducks in a row," Hill said.

Water levels varied around the state, including rivers high on their banks in far southern Minnesota to below-normal levels in the north. In International Falls, Voyageurs National Park staff announced that hazard markers, buoys and other navigational aids were in place in the park's four main lakes: Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point. "Low water levels may create unmarked hazards that are not typically visible during high-water periods," park officials noted in a news release.

The supply of spottail shiner minnows — a favorite early-season walleye bait in Minnesota — is always in question on opening day, and this year was no different.

"There's a big shortage in the state right now," said Marshall Koep, owner of Urbank Bait in Otter Tail County.

Largely considered one of the state's leading providers of live bait, Koep was busy Saturday making deliveries. This year, with early ice-outs, bait dealers were expecting ample spottail shiners. But Koep said lake and river temperatures never got warm enough to spark reliable runs of shiners into the shallows where they can be trapped. The runs began a few days ago, but not in time to capture and distribute as many spottails as anglers needed. Some bait shops had them, others didn't.

"It's a hair short," said Koep, who sold a lot of golden shiners in lieu of spottails. "Just a few days late this year."

Professional fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids spent opening day with two pals on Lake Winnibigoshish, better known as "Winnie." Walleyes were sluggish and slow to bite during the calm morning, he said. But the bite picked up nicely in the afternoon when a breeze kicked up out of the southeast.

Neustrom said his group was jigging with light jigs tipped with rainbow chubs in 8-to-11 feet of water. "I think tomorrow will even be better," he said.

Reporter Bob Timmons contributed to this report.