An excellent opener despite lingering ice
Marshall Helmberger
M. Helmberger
Anglers crowded into Pike Bay, one of the only large expanses of open water on Lake Vermilion as of opening weekend.

REGIONAL—Sunshine and the warmest temperatures of the year so far greeted anglers for last Saturday’s fishing opener, which helped make up for the lack of open water on many area lakes.

And the solid fishing didn’t hurt either, as many anglers reported excellent results across the area. “The walleyes were very cooperative for most of the fishermen,” said fishing guide Cliff Wagenbach.

Lake Vermilion’s Pike Bay was the hot location for many, as it offered the big lake’s largest expanse of open water and an abundance of walleye that had moved into the shallow bay for the spawn. With the sunshine and mild temperatures, it felt almost like summer.

By contrast, just a mile and a half away, at McKinley Park, the northwest wind overnight had pushed Big Bay’s massive ice sheet up against the shore, leaving a decidedly wintery feel to the campground there.

With water temperatures still struggling to reach the low 40s, most anglers were anticipating a slow bite. As is usual for opener, most worked jigs and minnows. But some found better success trolling rapalas, which seemed particularly enticing to larger fish. That was true for Jon Perpich and his crew, who worked Pike Bay and open water portions of Big Bay with only marginal success for much of the weekend. Sunday evening, they switched to rapalas and they immediately picked up several large walleye, most of which were within the slot and had to be released. They could have kept a beautiful 29-1/2 incher, caught by Perpich’s son-in-law, but they returned that fish to the water as well.

It was much the same story on Vermilion’s west end, where rapalas proved the hot ticket for some anglers. “I talked to one group that was trolling rapalas in Black Bay,” said Doug Knoer. “They caught 32 walleye but couldn’t keep a single one because they were all in the slot.”

Knoer said jigs and minnows proved less effective, but were favored by the smaller male walleye, which were under the slot limit. “We got a few fish to eat that way, but it was nothing to write home about,” he said.

Anglers had limited access along much of the west end, due to the ice conditions. Ice also covered most of the rest of the lake, but as wind opened up leads, some anglers managed to venture across portions of Big Bay, and many found plenty of fish in the deeper waters. Wagenbach split his time between Pike Bay and Big Bay, and caught 48 “eaters” between Saturday and Sunday, all on minnows. “The biggest fish we caught was 16 inches,” he said. He kept limits for all in the boat and released the rest.

The fishing was just as hot on Basswood Lake, near Ely, where those who managed to avoid lingering ice found great early season action— for both walleye and northerns. Kaitlyn Larson, of Ely, caught two outstanding northerns within minutes on Basswood over the weekend, including a 39-incher and a 37-incher, both taken on sucker minnows. She and her Dad also caught a stringer full of walleye.

Plenty of anglers reported success on White Iron Lake, as well, and the walleyes were most abundant, as usual, near flowing water. Jigs and rainbow minnows seemed to be the hottest bait, according to Captain Russ at Babe’s Bait.

To the northwest, anglers found plenty of remaining ice on Lake Kabetogama and other border lakes, but those who managed to find open water picked up nice stringers of walleye and sauger. Phil Hart, at Gateway Store, suggested he’d eaten a bit of crow over the weekend, after having predicted that Kabetogama would be clear of ice by opener. North winds on Friday pushed most of the remaining ice towards the south shore, where the only lake accesses are located, and that kept most anglers from getting out on the water. Many of those opted to launch at Ash River instead, where they found more open water, and plenty of fish.

Val Cook of Cold Springs Deer Farm and Bait Shop, said he heard good reports from both Ash Lake and Kabetogama. While he said it was quieter than a normal fishing weekend, bait sales were tremendous. “The die-hard anglers who got out on the lake caught fish,” he said.

Open water for the weekend

While ice made it difficult at times for anglers on opening weekend, that won’t be an issue this weekend, as rain and wind helped clear ice from the vast majority of lakes in the region. Lake Vermilion was declared ice free prior to noon on Wednesday, which makes the official ice-out Tuesday, May 13. Trout Lake still had ice covering about 40 percent of the lake as of Wednesday, according to pilot Bud VanDeusen.

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