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When Gov. Mark Dayton heads out in the early hours of May 13 in hopes of hooking into a big fish, he’ll be doing something only a few governors have done before: Marking the opening day of Minnesota’s angling season by fishing on a river.
While the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener has taken place on the Mississippi three times before, it’s been on the lower, broader, deeper parts of the river between Red Wing and Winona, stretches that resemble lakes because of the dams and locks that impound the river to facilitate barge traffic. Dayton will see a much different Mississippi in the greater St. Cloud area, a shallower, more lazy river that calls for different angling techniques than those used on lakes and big rivers.
“Rivers are dynamic and always changing, with different flows and stages,” said Eric Altena, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager for the area. “That can affect your fishing a lot.”
The portion of the river that’s the focus for the Governor’s Fishing Opener this year is about 200 to 400 yards wide, and averages less than 3 feet in depth, with several deeper pools. Altena describes three different sections of the Mississippi around St. Cloud, separated by dams where early American explorer Zebulon Pike would have encountered water falls when he first visited the area in 1805.
The river below the St. Cloud dam includes the Beaver Islands, a cluster of 20 or 30 islands on the south end of St. Cloud so named by Pike for "the immense signs of those animals, for they have dams on every island.” The St. Cloud pool is a 6-mile stretch between the St. Cloud and Sartell dams that includes about a 264-acre reservoir within St. Cloud, as well as several miles of shallower, more natural river running through Sauk Rapids. Between the dams at Sartell and Royalton, the river flows unimpeded for 26 miles.
Nearly three dozen species of fish can be found in this portion of the Mississippi River, including smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish and the occasional muskellunge. The river’s diverse and robust fishery relies wholly on natural reproduction (i.e. no stocking) and is largely the product of a healthy watershed. It receives relatively low angling pressure and catch rates can be high, in excess of five fish per hour for smallmouth bass.
Below St. Cloud, the river is recognized as a world-class smallmouth bass fishery that’s maintained by a special regulation with a 12-inch to 20-inch protected slot and a three-fish daily bag limit. Anglers fishing the opener on any stretch of the river around St. Cloud are likely to run into some bass action, Altena said. The season is catch and release for bass until May 27.
While electronics such as depth finders can be handy on large lakes, a pair of eyeballs may be just as useful on a shallow river. Altena recommends looking for eddies and riffles, places of transition in the flow, where the current changes or slows. If it’s rained recently, look for stormwater inlets or tributary streams – fish congregate there and wait for the current to deliver food. For an all-around general purpose set-up, Altena likes a nightcrawler or two on a short Lindy rig with about a one-foot leader and a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook. High flow conditions are more favorable for walleye reproduction and recruitment, while low flow will generally yield more bass and catfish spawning success.
“If you don’t get a hit within 15 minutes, something’s wrong, and you should probably move,” he said.
The St. Cloud area of the Mississippi River also presents great opportunities for shore fishing, with many parks and public lands along the river for access. Downstream of the St. Cloud dam are Riverside Park, Beaver Islands Trail Park and River Bluffs Regional Park. Above the dam there’s Wilson Park and a number of others all along the river up to Sauk Rapids and to Sartell.
“There are plenty of opportunities to jump around from spot to spot to find the best one and the best presentation,” Altena said. “A lot has to do with timing. A spot may be productive or not at different times of day.”
As far as fish consumption goes, the river is similar to any other lake in the area, Altena said. As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to let the bigger ones go and keep the fish under 16 inches for eating.
Visit Fish Minnesota for more information about fishing.
Minnesotans will celebrate great fishing when the season officially kicks off on Saturday, May 13.
Just how great is fishing in the land of 10,000 lakes? Minnesota ranks second in the nation in the number of resident anglers -- 1.4 million Minnesotans cast a line each year. Minnesota is the third most-popular inland fishing destination for out-of-state visitors.
Whether you’re chasing walleye in Lake of the Woods, casting for trout in southeastern Minnesota’s clear, cold streams or in search of monstrous sturgeon and muskellunge, you’ll find many opportunities among Minnesota’s 5,500 fishable lakes and 18,000 miles of fishable streams and rivers.
But the fantastic fishing that creates $4.2 billion in economic activity and 35,000 private sector jobs doesn’t just happen on its own. It’s the careful fisheries management work of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that creates a myriad of opportunities for anglers each year.
Fisheries staff in 29 offices across Minnesota perform lake surveys and population assessments on a regular basis. The data collected allow informed decisions to be made about regulations that can sustain and enhance a fish population, fish stocking, water quality and habitat conditions.
Stocking of walleye, muskellunge and trout occur throughout Minnesota. Stocking can provide opportunities to catch a particular species of fish that anglers might otherwise not have. Provided habitat and forage conditions are appropriate, stocking also can introduce new species that enhance and improve fishing.
Sometimes, fisheries management can correct the past. Here in Minnesota, sturgeon have been reintroduced into the rivers where they once lived. Lake trout are fully recovered in Lake Superior. Habitat improvements that enhance spawning and conservative regulations are rehabilitating these and other species in our state’s most iconic lake.
Throughout Minnesota’s 87 counties, DNR fisheries staff use their knowledge and expertise to benefit area aquatic resources and fish. Whether it’s setting and checking nets to count fish and record the data, stocking fish, surveying habitat or working with community, educational and outdoor groups, all the work combines to make fishing in Minnesota a truly world class experience.
Fishing license dollars pay for the majority of this work. But – like any business – operating costs rise over time. While prices for products and services aren’t fixed; fishing license fees have been the same since 2013. That’s why DNR is asking for a $3 increase for an individual fishing license.
“Anglers will see a noticeable difference in their fishing experience this season without a license fee increase,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “Lake and stream surveys and assessments that give us the information we need to make the best management decisions will be significantly curtailed. Fewer fish will be stocked in more than 200 lakes. And there will be much less time to monitor habitat quality and needs, land use and other factors that have major impacts to Minnesota fisheries.”
The modest fee increase isn’t being sought to create new staff positions or build programs. What drives the fee increase are the decline in buying power due to increasing costs for pickup trucks, boats, trailers, motors and other equipment.
The DNR’s fisheries section has a long tradition of belt-tightening and the proposed fee increase won’t change that. Staffing levels are down about 13 percent from 10 years ago and, overall, fisheries area offices have fewer employees. Office operating budgets are leaner, too.
“For about the cost of a scoop of minnows and not much more than what a gallon of gas costs, anglers can support the necessary and important work that 29 area fisheries offices do across Minnesota,” Landwehr said. “That modest $3 increase will allow DNR to sustain and improve fishing quality and opportunity and meet the expectations of outdoor-loving Minnesotans.”
Learn more at Support the Outdoors.
Six feet – that’s the length of the longest lake sturgeon tagged by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and there’s a chance a Rainy River angler could catch that 6-foot fish or others out of the 8,959 sturgeon tagged to date as part of a long-term study.
“Spring sturgeon fishing on the Rainy River has been excellent this year,” said Phil Talmage, DNR Baudette area fisheries supervisor. “As if catching a lunker sturgeon isn’t enough, catching a tagged fish and reporting it gives anglers and the DNR an added bonus. Cooperation from anglers is an essential part of this long-term tagging and recapture study.”
Anglers who report the tag number on a sturgeon receive an email back from the Baudette office thanking them, along with maps and information collected on their tagged fish and its history since tagged. The information tells a story of the sturgeon’s travels from when it was captured until it was caught and reported.
Of the 8,959 lake sturgeon tagged so far, 5,484 were longer than 45 inches at the time they were tagged. The longest sturgeon tagged was 72 inches – 6 feet – but weight was not recorded for this fish when it was captured on the Rapid River, near Clementson, in 2014.
The heaviest sturgeon tagged and weighed was 89.1 pounds, but only 63.5 inches long. This fish came from the Littlefork River in 2000. The largest sturgeon sampled was caught off of Pine Island in September of 2007. This fish was 73 inches long and estimated to weigh 120 pounds. Unfortunately, the DNR was not set up to tag this fish, so it was released without a tag.
“Our tagging program is part of an effort to monitor sturgeon as the population recovers,” Talmage said. “Besides understanding sturgeon movement and reproduction cycles, the tagging effort also allows us to make population estimates.”
Population estimates of the number of sturgeon longer than 40 inches in the Lake of the Woods-Rainy River system were made in 1990, 2004 and again in 2014. The sturgeon population grew from about 16,000 in 1990, to about 60,000 in 2004 and about 92,000 in 2014.
The Lake of the Woods-Rainy River system is one of the few areas in the country that has a sturgeon population that is healthy enough to support a fishery.
“In Minnesota we are fortunate that sturgeon are beginning to recover in most watersheds throughout the state,” Talmage said. “This has been accomplished though improving water and habitat quality, stocking to reintroduce the species and improving fish passage through dam removal and modifications.”
Intense commercial exploitation during the late 1800s and early 1900s decimated the once abundant sturgeon population in Lake of the Woods and Rainy River. After the decline of the commercial fishery, the sturgeon population was unable to rebound due to water pollution and degraded habitat in the Rainy River, the primary spawning area and nursery habitat for young sturgeon. But because sturgeon are extremely long-lived, enough individuals managed to survive and reproduction was sufficient to maintain a small population.
With the passage of clean water legislation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially the Clean Water Act in 1972, the sturgeon population started to recover as water quality and habitat conditions improved. Now reproduction is successful in most years.
In Minnesota, lake sturgeon are listed as a Species of Special Concern. What happened to sturgeon in the Lake of the Woods-Rainy River system also happened to many populations throughout the continent. In addition to water-quality and habitat degradation, the constructions of dams impacted populations throughout the world.
In the Minnesota waters of Lake of the Woods and Rainy River, anglers can catch-and-release sturgeon Oct. 1 through May 15 and July 1 through Sept. 30. Anglers who purchase a $5 sturgeon harvest tag can harvest one fish 45-50 inches inclusive, or over 75 inches in length, per calendar year: April 24 through May 7 or July 1 through Sept. 30. The sturgeon season is closed May 16 through June 30.
To report a tagged fish visit mndnr.gov/taggedfish or to report it directly to the Baudette office, find contact information and other management information at mndnr.state.mn.us/areas/fisheries/baudette.
For statewide sturgeon fishing regulations, visit mndnr.state.mn.us/regulations/fishing.
Anglers fishing Upper Red Lake in northwestern Minnesota this spring will be able to keep four walleye of which only one may be longer than 17 inches, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
These new regulations, effective on the walleye fishing opener Saturday, May 13, allow one more fish in the daily bag than the regulations that were in place in the winter.
“Harvest under the three fish bag limit resulted in approximately 109,000 pounds for the winter season,” said Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji for the DNR. “There is still room within the target harvest range to allow an additional fish this spring.”
Red Lake’s walleye harvest is managed under a joint harvest plan, revised in 2015 by the Red Lakes Fisheries Technical Committee.
“The new harvest plan recommends a more aggressive approach when walleye spawning stock is in surplus, as it currently is,” Barnard said. “The extra fish allowed by the daily bag limit will increase open water harvest some, and allowing one fish over 17 inches meets our harvest plan objectives by spreading harvest over a wide range of sizes and removing some of the surplus spawning stock.”
More information on Red Lake fishing regulations are available at mndnr.gov/regulations/fishing.
Survey an important part of ongoing research into elk movements
Minnesota’s elk range in northwestern Minnesota has three herds with a total of 79 elk, according to the annual aerial elk population survey completed by the Department of Natural Resources in Kittson, Marshall and Roseau counties. Past surveys recorded 83 elk in 2016 and 131 in 2015.
“The variability we’re seeing in these numbers year to year is due mainly to the movement of the Caribou-Vita herd that travels back and forth across the Minnesota-Manitoba border,” said John Williams, DNR northwest region wildlife manager.
“However, we are concerned about declining numbers of elk in the Grygla herd in Marshall County,” Williams said. “This herd hasn’t been hunted since 2012, yet the population continues to trend downward.”
In Marshall County, observers counted 17 elk in the Grygla herd, down from the 21 counted last year and 18 in 2015. The current population goal for the Grygla herd is 30 to 38 elk.
Aerial surveys are a snapshot in time, meaning they are only an estimate of the population, not an exact number. The DNR counts elk only on the Minnesota side during its aerial surveys.
This year, the DNR conducted a joint aerial elk survey with Manitoba, which was completed on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 for the areas close to the border. Manitoba wildlife staff counted 108 elk near the border and 55 slightly north of Vita, Manitoba, totaling 163 animals on the Canadian side of the border. The Caribou-Vita herd is Minnesota’s largest herd, with a current population goal of 150 to 200 elk inhabiting both sides of the border.
Depending on the year and day of the survey, elk numbers on the Minnesota side can greatly vary. Observers counted only one elk this year in Minnesota in the Caribou-Vita herd. Ten animals were counted in 2016 and 79 in 2015.
“Our observers saw many elk tracks near the border during the survey on Feb. 21, and although they saw only one elk, we suspected the majority of the herd was in Manitoba,” Williams said. “This was confirmed by the results of the Manitoba aerial elk survey conducted on Feb. 22.”
Another herd, the Kittson-Central herd, is located near Lancaster in Kittson County. Observers counted 61 elk compared to 52 in 2016 and 34 in 2015. This year’s count is just above the current population goal of 50 to 60 animals.
In 2016, the DNR radio-collared 20 cow elk in Minnesota’s three herds to begin research into elk movements and habitat use that should help managers improve the effectiveness of elk population surveys, the knowledge of Minnesota elk biology and movements and elk depredation management. The study is being conducted by researchers from the DNR and Minnesota State University-Mankato. It will run through June 2018.
This research project is the first of its kind in Minnesota. The goal is to improve understanding of the species and ultimately develop management programs that benefit elk and their habitat, while also minimizing conflicts with landowners.
Funding for the project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and approved by the state Legislature. The DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are also providing funding.
For more information on Minnesota’s elk management, visit mndnr.gov/elk.
21-day walleye closure in July expected to help extend fishing season through Labor Day
Catch-and-release only regulations needed to rebuild Mille Lacs Lake’s walleye population will again be in effect when anglers hit the water on Saturday, May 13. The 2017 walleye season on Mille Lacs is scheduled to run through Monday, Sept. 4.
“Our goal is to have the longest fishing season possible while ensuring the conservation of the lake’s future walleye spawning stock,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “We understand catch and release is a difficult option for anglers who enjoy a fish meal, but we are using everything in our management toolbox to ensure a heathy and plentiful walleye population for future fishing seasons.”
In addition to the catch-and-release regulation, and to help keep the walleye season open on Mille Lacs through Labor Day, the lake will have a 21-day walleye fishing closure from Friday, July 7 to July 27. During that 21-day period, anglers can fish for all other species in Mille Lacs Lake including bass, muskies and northerns but only with artificial bait and lures.
An exception exists for anglers targeting northern pike and muskellunge only, and who don’t possess walleye gear. Those anglers may possess and use live sucker minnows longer than 8 inches when fishing.
The decision to have a 21-day closure period during the walleye season was made after a successful winter season on Mille Lacs drove walleye harvest higher than expected.
“Ice anglers fished more on Mille Lacs in 2017 and caught more and larger walleye than expected,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries section chief. “As a result, ice fishing this winter accounted for about one-third of the total amount of walleye state anglers can harvest from Mille Lacs in 2017.”
Regulation decisions also were aided by several meetings and consultations with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee. Topics discussed between DNR staff and committee members included catch-and-release only restrictions, season dates, live bait restrictions, and the reason and timing of a temporary summer closure.
“The plan is for this closure to coincide with the hottest part of the summer when released fish are vulnerable to stress,” Pereira explained. “Warm water combined with July’s higher fishing pressure means that more fish die – even those that are caught and returned to the water.”
The tendency for caught fish to die after being released is called hooking mortality, which increases as water temperatures warm. During the last two weeks of July 2016 alone, hooking mortality accounted for more than half of the state’s walleye harvest allocation for the entire open water season.
“These measures will extend the Mille Lacs walleye season as long as possible this summer and protect the younger walleye the lake needs to rebuild its population,” Pereira said.
The state's 2017 walleye allocation is 44,800 pounds. However, during discussions, state and Ojibwe tribal leadership established that the 2017 walleye season will remain open through 12:01 a.m., Sept. 5, provided the state harvest doesn't exceed a conservation cap of 55,800.
Additionally, state and tribal leadership agreed to return to an overage system, through which each party will be required to deduct any harvest above its allocation from a future year’s allocation.
“Our next milestone for success is to observe another abundant year class of walleye,” Pereira said. “We need more than one year when a lot of walleye hatch. What we need to see is large numbers of walleyes surviving beyond the first year to add more spawning fish to the population. We’ve not seen that yet.”
Pereira said the DNR is committed to maintaining the Mille Lacs area as a premier fishing destination. He said the agency is conducting a comprehensive review of its data-collecting methods in order to ensure the most accurate information possible is being used. For example, Michigan State University fisheries experts are now reviewing the agency’s creel survey methods.
Mille Lacs continues to make headlines for its nationally recognized smallmouth bass and muskie fisheries. For example, the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship is returning to Mille Lacs this fall for the second consecutive year. Last year, some of the nation’s top competitive anglers referred to the lake as a “world-class smallmouth bass factory.”
In addition to fishing, Mille Lacs offers numerous recreational activities including: boating, waterskiing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and public beaches.
“Mille Lacs is a premier tourism destination with diverse fishing and a whole lot more,” said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism arm. “The area additionally offers lots of ways outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the area’s natural beauty on hiking, biking and ATV trails, watching wildlife, golfing or visiting a Minnesota state park.”
In June 2016, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a supplemental budget bill which included $3.6 million for local grants and loans in Mille Lacs County and $300,000 for the Mille Lacs Tourism Council to bolster area tourism marketing efforts.
More information about Mille Lacs, ongoing DNR management and research, and area recreation opportunities is available on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/millelacslake.
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