By Joe Henry
There is a spring tradition for some anglers that goes back generations. As the warm and welcomed spring sun begins to melt the ice and snow, the Rainy River just east of Baudette, MN begins to show pockets of open water. The open water that begins showing its beautiful hues slowly makes its way to the west and north, eventually ending up in Lake of the Woods. As the ice gives way to open water, thousands of walleyes are making their way to their spawning grounds. In addition, the river is home to a strong population of huge Lake Sturgeon that have connections to the dinosaur ages and will labor the strongest angler's arms with their sheer strength. It is spring, we are in MN, fishing seasons are still open and this is tradition.
Depending upon the spring, open water often appears the third week of March, but every year is different. The local tourism bureau and resorts provide daily updates on the progress of the open water, fishing reports, and any other pertinent info. For anglers who haven't hit the water since the fall, this is very important information.
While fishing for walleyes is closed in most of the state, this area, being border water with Canada, is open for walleye fishing through April 14th. This allows for some unique opportunities to not only catch a walleye of a lifetime, but also for big numbers of fish that are concentrated in the river.
The first anglers to appear are the brave souls who elect to bring up smaller boats that can be pushed across the shore ice and carefully slid into the icy waters. These are the pioneers of the walleye run and obviously "safety first" has to be the mantra here. Most anglers wait for the accesses to be ice free so they can land their boat more traditionally. The county is good about using backhoes to help speed up the natural process of the access ice moving out and also creating a safer environment to those who would get their boat in the water regardless.
For walleyes, tackle during this time is simple. A good jigging rod, a handful of jigs and either minnows or bright plastics will do the trick.
Many anglers will vertically jig over the side of the boat, working the bottom foot of the water column. Anchor up and work a section of water. Often times, groups of walleyes are on the move and will come to you.
Lake sturgeon have made a strong resurgence in the Rainy River and on Lake of the Woods and now are very strong in numbers and size of fish. This strong surge is believed to be attributed to no commercial netting for many years and the incorporation of the clean water act. At one point, paper mills upstream were adding "stuff" to the waters of the Rainy River that weren't conducive to the reproduction of sturgeon. That has all changed for the better and the sturgeon have reacted nicely.
These prehistoric fish are a blast to catch. Fish can get to over 100 lbs. and fight hard, often showing off their acrobatics by leaping out of the water. In many cases, it's almost like catching an ocean fish right here in MN.
Anglers will anchor up in or on the sides of a hole in the river. The tackle used is heavier than your normal walleye gear. 60 - 100 lb. test, big reels and a stiff rod is the norm for these giants. On the business end of this setup, anglers will use a 3-4 ounce no roll sinker combined with a sturgeon rig, which is an 18" snell made of 60lb test with a big circle hook. Load the circle hook with a few nightcrawlers or a combo of crawlers and frozen shiners and fish the bottom much like fishing for carp or catfish. It isn't rocket science and angler success is high.
If you want to make things simple, use one of the resort's guides. Wake up on a nice spring morning, have a nice breakfast and at 8am, step aboard. Everything is taken care of for you. The guide provides the rods, reels, tackle, bait and they know where the fish are. This is a great option for many. The only thing you need to think about is what to wear and what would you like for lunch. Easy and simple.
The walleye season on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River is open through April 14th and opens again in mid-May for the MN Fishing Opener. Lake sturgeon have either a "catch and release" or "keep" season through May 15th and then again on July 1st. If you decide to become part of the tradition, a MN fishing license is required and of course know the regulations. Oh yeah, one more thing, bring a camera!
As far as lodging, there are a lot of choices. The Lake of the Woods resorts and hotels around Baudette and on the river are a natural choice. To make it easy, there is an entire list of lodging at the Lake of the Woods Tourism website, www.LakeoftheWoodsMN.com.
The small businesses in the area have most everything you need. Bait shops carry the hot jigs, plastics, sturgeon rigs and live bait. Hardware stores, restaurants, coffee shops and souvenir retailers are buzzing this time of year. Things are hopping in the north country and people are excited.
Spring walleye and sturgeon fishing is tradition and an exciting time in these parts. Almost a rite of passage to the warmer months ahead, it marks the official start of open water fishing that many anglers have been looking forward to. It seems only appropriate the kickoff to the open water season involves some of the largest walleyes in the land sharing the water with the prehistoric sturgeon stacked up in one beautiful river. It is spring in MN, this is tradition and if you like fishing, it is game on!