NEW ULM, Minn. — It’s a Minnesota tradition to head north for the fishing opener, but last year’s COVID-19 pandemic kept many anglers closer to home.

It’s anybody’s guess if the same will be true this year, but there is good reason to believe the lakes of southern Minnesota will see many returning anglers on the opening.

There’s one obvious reason: Good fishing opportunities.

Southern Minnesota doesn’t have by any means the number of lakes or the fabled, big walleye waters as does the northern half of the state. But it does offer plenty of opportunities to catch walleyes, and to go after a variety of other species, from panfish to bass.

Overall, Jack Lauer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s regional fisheries manager for the southern region, said anglers should enjoy a good opener on the waters of the 32 southern counties.

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Some of the best fishing, especially when it comes to walleyes, can be found in the Willmar and Spicer areas, he said. Lake Koronis and Diamond Lake offer some of the best opening weekend opportunities in the region, a point that Dave Coahran and Brad Carlson with the Spicer fisheries staff have highlighted in a narrative on fishing opportunities in the region.

Best of all, anglers in the area have lots of options, thanks to the mix of fish species available in local waters. If the walleyes are slow, anglers can pursue sunfish and crappies, northern pike or enjoy catch-and-release bass fishing this weekend as well.

“There’s all sorts of options right at the doorsteps around Spicer, Willmar,” said Lauer.

He also suggests looking west as well. Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Traverse lakes are traditionally good walleye lakes in the early season.

That’s part of the reason to consider staying close to home. In general, the southern lakes offer their best fishing opportunities in the spring and early summer.

Lauer has been with the southern region office in New Ulm for 20 years now. Through that time, he said he has seen fishing opportunities improve, though not substantially. The bigger difference, he said, is the opportunities for quality fishing are better today.

He attributes the improvement to technological advances that have allowed fisheries workers to do their work smarter these days, as well as ongoing efforts to address water quality issues in the working landscape of southern Minnesota. Ninety-seven percent of the land within the region is privately owned, and the greatest share of it in agriculture.

Just like northern Minnesota, the southern counties are home to many avid anglers.

“It’s an important fabric of what we do,” said Lauer of fishing in the state.

He said that fishing license sales have remained consistent in the state. Roughly one in four Minnesotans over age 16 purchase a fishing license.

Fishing pressure has remained relatively stable in the region, said Lauer. Creel surveys tend to show that about 85 percent of the pressure on southern lakes is from anglers who live near these waters. Most anglers are fishing waters within a 35-mile distance of their home, he said.

Southern Minnesota generally has the same mix of fish species as does northern Minnesota, with the obvious exceptions of lake and stream trout and muskie. There are only three muskie waters in the southern 32 counties: French Lake, Fox Lake and the Fairmont chain of lakes.

Lauer said there have been discussions about possibly stocking muskie in a lake or two in west central Minnesota. There are a few lakes with characteristics that would support a stocked population of muskie. If it happens, he said the stocking of fingerlings would be done to maintain a low-density population.

It will occur only if a public information process finds support from anglers in the selected waters, he added.

The region lacks the cold-water streams needed for trout, but some put-and-take trout fishing opportunities are made available in Canby Creek in Yellow Medicine County and the Redwood River in Camden State Park.

Lauer reminds anglers that special regulations for the Quality Sunfish Initiative have been placed on 94 new lakes this year, bringing the total to 151 in the state. Five of the newly added lakes are in this area. The new regulations allow a daily bag limit of five sunfish on George and Diamond Lakes and a 10-fish limit on Nest, Florida and Long Lake (by Hawick).

He adds that anglers can always find information on lakes to fish by checking the DNR’s lake finder and website.

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