The season is short, but extremely precious. Where else can you open water fish in one of the most northern parts of the United States (bordering Canada) in March or April and dial in on big walleyes and the elusive sturgeon? If fishing the Rainy River near Baudette, Minnesota isn’t on your bucket list, it should be.
Meet Kurt Hinton and John Anderly, brothers-in-law from the Otsego/Elk River area north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The 60-plus year-old guys received a special Christmas gift from their kids a few months ago—crossing one item off each of the men’s bucket lists. They are fishing the early season on the Rainy River, guided by Matt Breuer of Northcountry Guide Service. Matt guides fishing year-round in the Bemidji area, bear hunts in the fall, and for 12 years now, guides walleye and sturgeon fishing during this special season on the Rainy River.
“When the ice opens up you need to call your boss and just let them know that you won’t be in for work,” shared Matt. “Whether they open up the dam like they did this year, or the melt occurs early naturally like last year, when it happens you need to be there and get in on the action. It is packed with people. I love it!” The boat ramps, most just two-wide, back up like rush hour traffic through a major metro freeway. Anglers allow extra time to get on or off the water.
Part of the challenge is that just a few miles away from the river launches the ice is still more than two-feet thick. “There were eight guys ice fishing in front of Sportsman’s Lodges where we are staying as we left for the river,” remarked Matt. That’s just six miles apart on Lake of the Woods.
What a phenomenon.
Special border regulations allow an angler to keep two walleyes under 19.5 inches. Some do. Most anglers catch and release due to the pre-spawn condition of the walleyes. “The typical eight-pound walleye is a 10-pounder filled with eggs,” added Matt. There are lots of them. Who would grow tired of catching 20, 30, or 40 nice walleyes in the course of a day? Who would even notice that it is still winter in the air while they fish in open water?
“When the clarity is good the bite is on fire,” said Matt, noting that most of their success came on pitching jigs tipped with rainbow minnows. Sometimes the spring run-off from the creeks that feed into the Rainy River deposits a lot of mud. “If it turns to chocolate milk things can shut down. And you never really know until you get here.” That’s why forums on the Internet buzz as the weather changes. Phone calls to the resorts are common, too. Checking on conditions is critical. The season may open (this year it opened March 1) but that doesn’t mean Mother Nature cooperates. Sometimes you might only get a few days that both nature and DNR regulations are in-sync and the conditions work to catch fish. Sturgeon fishing is catch and release-only during this time.
“Over 58 resorts, hotels, and outfitters are based in this area and employ a lot of people,” shared Joe Henry, Executive Director of Tourism for Lake of the Woods. “By far, fishing is the single biggest reason people come to Lake of the Woods and Rainy River.” The walleye season ended Sunday, April 14 and sturgeon (some dates catch and release and some harvest) ends May 15. Of course, the seasons both re-open later post spawn.
Tourism is important to the Lake of the Woods community. Ice fishing is a huge part of it—so are summer vacations and resort fishing on the open water.
Next year, if winter doldrums climb to a fevered pitch in your world, book a trip for this exciting fishing opportunity that falls “in between” hard and soft water seasons. Then wait for the magic words from the locals on the forums and answering the phones at the resorts: “Ice Out!”
K.J. Houtman is author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for 8-12 year olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.
Images courtesy Matt Breuer