By Nick Simonson
There will be an exodus of sorts as anglers head east from North Dakota for the Minnesota fishing opener this weekend. While sportsmen have been enjoying a successful start to walleye and pike angling on the various lakes and rivers throughout the Peace Garden State, much of Minnesota remains closed until those seasons open this Sat., May 11. The reason for the retention of the Minnesota fishing opener, however, has less to do with science, and more to do with tradition, while the practice of year-round angling in North Dakota has become part and parcel with the last two generations of anglers in the state.
Past Practice in ND
Throughout the mid-and-late 1900s, both North Dakota and Minnesota had fishing openers in place, with the idea of protecting popular game fish like walleyes and pike from harvest during the spawning season, which typically takes place in April and early May for those species. Aside from the Missouri River which opened to year-round fishing in 1975, the two states had spring openers in May until 1993, with North Dakota’s usually a week earlier than Minnesota’s. In that year, the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) opened all waters in the state to year-round fishing and did away with opening day.
“What we found was most of our lakes were stocked anyway, and the only places we had natural reproduction were places like the Missouri River, which at the time was open continuously,” explained Scott Gangl, NDG&F Fisheries Management Section Leader, “so we ended up doing away with the opener anyway due to missed opportunities, and there weren’t many benefits to it,” he concluded.
Any backlash received from the angling public was outweighed by the option to be able to fish earlier in the season when openwater opportunities presented themselves. Gangl pointed to this year’s extremely successful start to fishing on the Missouri River system, including an incredible run of fish into the Heart River which produced the state’s new record walleye, weighing 16 pounds, 9 ounces, and referenced the popularity of fishing the channels and coulees on Devils Lake, which draw thousands of shore anglers to the area in April and early May, as evidence of the good opportunities people have in spring. In the last three decades since the North Dakota fishing opener disappeared, concern about fishing for spawning pike and walleyes has waned.
“We do get comments every year, where people are outraged by the harvest of the fish that should get the opportunity to spawn, but over the years, the science has shown that there are more than enough spawners to carry out successful reproduction,” Gangl stated, adding, “our philosophy is to not chastise anyone for harvesting; we’re looking at everything, all of the data is showing this is sustainable – why make someone feel bad about taking home a fish of a lifetime?”
Gangl remarked the only drawback to doing away with the fishing opener in North Dakota all those years ago was the loss of excitement experienced with the rush of anglers to the water on that first weekend. Akin to deer or pheasant opener, the walleye opener in North Dakota often brought anglers out in droves, standing side-by-side along rivers and lake shores in search of the season’s first fish.
More About Tradition in MN
It’s that same feeling of tradition that has sustained the Minnesota fishing opener over the last thirty years, as agents of the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), recognize that the season start date calendared for this weekend is becoming less about science and more about the people.
“The science in the past said to protect walleyes as much as possible, but our numbers show walleyes are mostly harvested in the month of June,” said DNR Detroit Lakes Area Fisheries Supervisor Nathan Olson, “a lot of [the opener] now is tradition for the most part,” he continued, adding that while many legislative changes have occurred to impact fishing in recent years, no attempts to alter the implementation of the general fishing opener have been made in Minnesota.
Nevertheless, the opener persists and much like other season start dates, traffic will be heavy on the 10,000-plus lakes, as the event draws out resident anglers and brings in those from out of state. If nothing else, it serves as a quick boom for fishing-related businesses – such as tackleshops, lodges, and gas stations – as anglers head to their favorite waters, if only just for this weekend.
I don’t have the numbers, but the impact [of the opener on local economies] is evident, Olson stated, “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of people – just like deer opener where they just hunt that one weekend and are done – they buy their license to fish on opening weekend, and that’s it for the year,” he concluded.
The Minnesota walleye and pike season opens on Sat. May 11, along with a catch and release bass season, which runs until May 25, when smallmouth and largemouth bass are open for harvest. The Minnesota muskie fishing season opens June 1. For more information on ND fishing regulations, visit the NDG&F fishing page, visit; and for Minnesota angling visit the DNR fishing page.
Featured Photo: Border Crossing. Dylan Zubke of Bismarck, N.D. with a 28-inch walleye caught on a previous opener from the waters of Big Detroit Lake, Minn.