WILLMAR -- With most of the lakes in northern Minnesota still ice-covered, bait dealers in the west central area are preparing for what they hope will be a very busy fishing opener weekend here.
"I'm hoping so,'' said Greg Skindelien, of Skindelien Bait in New London. He is among those in the area who have received calls from anglers inquiring whether the lakes in the area are open.
Yes, and the docks are in the water and ready for anglers at all of the public accesses on lakes in Kandiyohi and neighboring counties, according to Jeremy Losinski, regional supervisor for parks and trails with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer.
"In the nick of time,'' said Losinski. The late ice-out meant DNR crews worked long days and scrambled to have the docks ready, and the ramps repaired.
As of Thursday, most of the popular fishing destinations north of Interstate 94 remained ice covered. That fact, along with recent news reports about good walleye opportunities in many of the lakes of Kandiyohi County, on the Minnesota River and Lake Minnewaska and Big Stone Lake, have many believing that anglers from outside the region will be headed this way.
Those who are willing to endure the elements and get out on Saturday should be rewarded with good walleye action, said Brad Foshaug of Brad's 71 Bait and Sports, Willmar. He just received word Thursday that he will have a supply of spot-tailed shiners and leeches to carry anglers through the weekend.
The late winter and concerns about invasive species have combined to limit supplies of shiners and leeches alike. The leeches are not as hard to come by, but don't even ask for jumbos, said area bait dealers. Supplies of crappie, flathead and sucker minnows, and crawlers, are more than adequate.
Like others, Foshaug is recommending that anglers focus on the shallow waters. There are good opportunities to catch pre-spawn walleyes.
But conditions will vary from lake to lake. Brad Carlson, with the DNR's fisheries crew in Spicer, said the spawning run is essentially complete in some area lakes, including Koronis and Rice.
Yet the walleyes will still be spawning in many other lakes, meaning that large females will be vulnerable.
"We're in unchartered waters,'' said Larry Jensen, Lake Minnewaska Bait and Tackle, Starbuck. Lake Minnewaska should be ice free by Saturday, but he cannot remember a year when the ice was so late to leave.
"North of Alex, I think they're toast,'' said Troy Haverly of Pete's Surplus, New London, while speaking of the ice cover that will limit what lakes can be fished to the north of Alexandria.
Haverly has received some calls asking about ice conditions here, and has also stocked up a good supply of minnows, crawlers and leeches in anticipation of lots of local fishing activity.
A forecast for windy conditions on Saturday may dampen some of the enthusiasm. Haverly said he is expecting Sunday to be the busier day. It's not only the weather. He suspects that once anglers try their usual opening day spots in larger lakes, they will switch tactics and come prowling the warmer, shallow waters of prairie lakes.
To be sure, there's plenty of outside interest in the fishing opportunities here. Sue Dice, of Island View Resort on Nest Lake, said they've received calls inquiring about ice conditions and lodging. Most of the resort's opening weekend guests are anglers who return every year, and had reserved their cabins long ago, she said.
Even so, Dice said she and her husband were stressed out waiting for the ice to disappear, fearful it would not be gone in time.
Now that it is, she said there is a lot to look forward to. "They're a little temperamental,'' said Dice of walleye. She is predicting not only a good opening weekend, but good fishing for walleyes well into June thanks to the late warm-up.