For area fishing professionals, and anglers in general, it’s the million-dollar question.
Where will the walleyes be biting on Saturday?
For area fisheries professionals, it’s a bit more complex, this walleye-fishing conundrum.
“Whether or not they make it from that five- to six-inch size to 12 to 13 to 14s that people see biting on the ends of their lines, that’s the million-dollar question,” Bacigalupi, the DNR fisheries supervisor in Brainerd, said of walleyes and Saturday’s walleye fishing opener. “For everyone in our business, that’s the million-dollar question. If we had the answer to that, we’d know a lot. That’s just hard to sample and it’s tough to know exact factors that get them from that five-inch size to 12-inchers to 13-inchers.”
Bacigalupi was referring to Gull Lake. But he could have been talking about any of the many lakes that stock walleyes in the greater Brainerd lakes area. He doesn’t pretend to have the answers to either of those million-dollar questions. But as a fisheries professional, he and other fisheries types are probably as in tune with walleye behavior as anyone. That could prove especially valuable this year, with the early ice-out impacting fish behavior and, ultimately, fishing patterns.
And while it won’t necessarily make for a perfect storm, Bacigalupi is predicting good things for Saturday’s Minnesota walleye and northern pike openers.
“Things evened out a little bit. We’re still early. We are ahead of schedule, not ‘record’ ahead of schedule,” Bacigalupi said of the extra-early ice-out this spring. “It will just be a nice, early opener.
“Temperature-wise, it’s a good couple weeks ahead of time. Fish don’t totally operate on temperature. They’re going on other cues, too. You’re likely to see fish that are a little more active, feeding because they’re well post-spawn. Metabolism is directly correlated to water temperature. The cues are telling them they need to eat and put some weight on before summer. And before the bait fish become too abundant, you have this window what you’re offering and maybe this is the best thing for them.”
It was rainy and cold on last year’s opener. This year, the forecast is for mostly sunny skies and a high of 67 degrees.
“It should be a really nice opener,” said Bacigalupi, whose territory includes all of Crow Wing County and parts of lower Cass County. “I’m going to get out Saturday. It should be a lot better than last year. My fingers were freezing and I was trying to Lindy rig and couldn’t feel my line. It was rainy and cold. It was slow. We should do much better this year.”
So where will the walleyes be biting on Saturday? Bacigalupi admits he’s no professional angler, but ...
“I would tell them (anglers) to go to the bigger lakes,” he said. “Most people say to start shallow and go deeper. But most people fish during the day, too. I’ve never done well up shallow during the day. Sure, early in the morning and at dusk. But don’t forget looking beyond the first or second break. And look at the sonar and see if you’re seeing marks in 20 feet. Use a jig and a minnow. But you’ve got to find them to have them bite. During the day I’d maybe look around. Walleyes are light sensitive and there’s pretty clear water around here for the most part.”
DNR fisheries biologists Mike Duval of Brainerd and Tom Jones of Aitkin said that, despite the early ice-out, it will pretty much be business as usual when it comes to finding walleyes on the opener.
“Walleye fishing for the 2012 opener probably won’t be as advanced as anglers might expect given the early ice-outs,” Jones said. “My sense is that many walleye and pike will probably still be in their traditional early season locations on the 2012 opener. I would start there, but be prepared to try a little deeper if fishing is slow.”
Said Duval: “While walleye may be a little further along than usual, the April weather has kept lakes cool, so most of the walleye will be close to where anglers usually find them on opener.”
Often lost in the pursuit of the state fish is the pike factor. But northern pike and their impact on the waters they inhabit isn’t lost on Bacigalupi this opener.
“Finding big pike is a tougher thing these days,” he said. “And those big pike are hard to replace. They take so long to grow. The best thing to do to keep the balance of a fishery is to release big pike, as tempting as it might be to keep them. A lot of people still have a problem putting a 24-incher back. They’re a nice, medium size with nice fillets on them.
“Those pike bite so readily. They’re very vulnerable to be over-harvested. They are the keystone predator in all systems and the system gets out of whack when we lose these fish. It does no harm in keeping these (smaller) fish — up to 24 inches. Release the 24-inchers and up.
“We’ve seen walleye slots being pretty successful. That’s a tougher thing with pike. People don’t seem to want to keep 12- to 22-inch pike. But there’s a lot more meat on an 18-inch pike than on two or three bluegills, even if don’t deal with the ‘Y’ bones and just take the tail meat.”
As for walleyes, “Populations are good,” Bacigalupi said. “There’s no reason to expect anything but a pretty good fishing season out there.”
BRIAN S. PETERSON, Outdoors Editor, may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.