PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the sale of fishing licenses, as of May 7, were up 2% over last year.

Compared to pre-pandemic sales in 2019, this year’s license sales are up nearly 58%, according to the DNR’s May 1 data.

DNR advice

Calub Shavlik is acting area supervisor of DNR fisheries for the Park Rapids area. He said the lakes are similar to the typical conditions for a fishing opener, even though the ice went off the lakes very early this year.

“The water temperatures that we are seeing right now in the lakes are normal for the middle of May,” he said.

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When it comes to fishing for walleye and northerns, he said he expects the shallow areas are going to be the hot fishing spots this year.

“However, you have to be flexible and be willing to try different depths because lakes will vary,” he added. “Shiners and minnows are the better baits for this time of year.”

Whether rain or shine, he said the key is being flexible.

“Just be willing to try different setups and techniques and look for active fish,” he said.

Tips from bait shops

Josh Severtson runs the fishing department at the Smokey Hills Outdoor Store in Park Rapids. He said the bait of choice for most anglers on the opener is usually minnows, whether it's shiners, fatheads or redtails. “Some guys do sometimes bring out crawlers or leeches,” he said.

He recommends shallow fishing with a jig and a minnow in five to 12 feet of water along the shoreline. “That will probably be your best bet to locate fish,” he said.

Severtson said smaller lakes warm up a little faster than the bigger lakes. “Water temps are sitting really good, low to mid-50s on a lot of lakes,” he said.

He said almost everyone nowadays has some type of fish locator so they can see the depth and some of what’s out there.

“From there, the upgrades are endless,” he said.

Severtson said weather is just one factor in the fishing formula.

“My best advice is to get out as much as you can,” he said. “We’ve caught some pretty nice fish at the worst time of day. Any time on the water’s a good time.”

He said lakes in the area known for walleye and northerns include Fish Hook, Potato, Long and Island lakes.

And if it happens to rain, that can work to the angler’s advantage, too.

“There’s a good period of fishing right before a barometric pressure change in a storm, because I guess the fish can feel that change and there’s a spike in bites,” he said. “But if a guy has the option, fish before, during and after.”

Severtson said there are some shortages in the fishing industry with both equipment and some bait due to shipping issues overseas.

“We have a lot of stuff on order and it’s slowly trickling through the door,” he said. “We have an awesome selection built up for the opener, but I think by the middle of the season a lot of stores will probably run dry.”

He said while the minnow supply looks good for the opener, there has been an ongoing issue with obtaining minnows the last three or four years due to a variety of factors, including weather, invasive species laws that make trapping more challenging and an influx of anglers.

“Last summer was a lot busier than average,” he said. “I don’t know if it was because vacationers were up longer, but it was all over the state and everyone was going through more bait.”

Severtson said his advice for a good opener is to check the weather often. “It can turn on a dime, so be ready for anything,” he said. “And pack warm clothes, because it’s always easier to shed clothes than add them on the lake. It’s especially cold in the early morning.

“It’s also good to buy bait ahead of time so you’re ready to go. A lot of people like to get out at 5 in the morning. I went out last year at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, fished for six hours and then came to work for 10 hours.”

Greg May is one of the owners of the Northern Bait in Park Rapids.

“Fishing should be good because they spawned early this year,” he said. “A lot of people will be going for walleye. Most people like to use shiners.”

He said the water temperature has still been pretty cold, so he’s heard it’s been spotty with panfish.

“I work seven days a week, so I don’t have much time to go fishing,” he said. “Fish Hook is a pretty good lake for walleye, also Island and Eagle lakes. Walleye will be up on shallower water closer to shore on the edge of reeds.”

Beware of the cold

According to a DNR news release, even though ice out was early this year, relatively cool weather since then, including overnight lows in the 30s, means the water temperature may be lower than people expect.

As anglers prepare to hit the water for Saturday’s fishing opener, it’s vital they keep this in mind and put their safety first.

“The date on the calendar isn’t helpful in determining the temperature of the water,” said Col. Rodmen Smith, DNR Enforcement Division director. “This year’s opener is later in May than usual, but in many places the water temperature remains dangerously cold. Anglers need to be aware of that fact, and plan accordingly.”

About 30% of annual boating fatalities happen during the cold-water season, when the water is less than about 70 degrees, and often involve the victim not wearing a life jacket. Swimming ability means little after an unexpected fall into cold water, as even strong swimmers can succumb to the debilitating effects of cold water within minutes.

“The law requires anyone younger than 10 to wear a life jacket when boating, but we urge everyone to wear a life jacket when they’re on or near water. This is especially important when water temperatures are low,” said Lisa Dugan, DNR Enforcement Division recreation safety outreach coordinator. “It’s the easiest and most effective way to prevent a tragedy.”

The DNR also offers the following tips for staying safe as this fishing season gets underway:

  • Don’t head out alone, and always tell someone on shore where you are going and when you plan to return.

  • Keep the floor of the boat free of clutter to avoid tripping and falling into the water.

  • Ensure the boat is equipped with safety equipment such as life jackets, communication and noise-making devices, and a first-aid kit.

For additional tips on staying safe on cold water, including what people should do if they fall in, visit the DNR’s cold water dangers webpage at www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/boatwater/cold-water.html.