DULUTH - Boat and motor ready for the walleye opener on Saturday? Check. New line on the reel? Check? Minnows for bait?

Not so fast.

A cool spring following a winter that saw many fish perish in shallow ponds and lakes have combined to create a minnow shortage in the final days before the Minnesota walleye fishing opener set for May 11.

Many minnows are raised and then trapped in shallow ponds and lakes in central and western Minnesota, many of which suffered low oxygen levels this winter causing fish to die. Heavy snow shuts down sunlight penetration, causing weeds to die and decay, consuming oxygen rather than producing it.

For some species like sucker minnows and shiners, the high, cold water caused a delay in their annual spawning as the fishing opener nears.

"It ain't gonna be good," said Phlilip Koep, owner of Urbank Live Bait Co. in Clitherall. "It's just been too cold for some of them to spawn. Shiners are going to be really tough. And a lot of suckers died off."

Koep said most bait shops he supplies should get a small delivery of fatheads and chubs "but probably not as many as they want."

Koep said bait trappers are facing a reduced number of lake options to take minnows from because they must avoid lakes with invasive species like zebra mussels. Minnesota law also prohibits importing most out of state minnows.

"I'm sitting here with an empty hatchery,'' said John Adams, owner of Lake and River Bait in Brainerd. Adams raises sucker minnows and sells all types of minnows wholesale. "Suckers haven't even spawned yet in the rivers. ... Shiners, like spot-tails, are going to be really in low numbers. And leeches are going to be small. It's been too cold."

While it seems there's a shortage of some type of bait every season, Craig Keuten, a Duluth wholesale bait dealer, said this spring is worse than usual.

"This is about the worst I've ever seen it. I don't think we're going to have many minnows by the opener," siad Keuten, a 56-year veteran of the live-bait business.

Keuten said anglers should wait until late in the week and then call ahead to their favorite bait shops to see what is available. Keuten said dealers won't gouge bait shops, noting supply and not price will be the issue.

John Chalstrom at Chalstrom's Bait north of Duluth said minnows have indeed been hard to trap so far this spring. But he said trappers could still pull enough minnows in this week to supply bait shops, and anglers, by the weekend. Chalstrom said he already has some minnows on hand but is still waiting for his normal pre-opener delivery.

"It's been tough so far. But I'm not going to panic yet. The trappers are out in the field now and let's see how they do this week as it warms up a little," Chalstrom said. "We should know more by Wednesday or Thursday. I'm pretty confident we'll have some more minnows by Friday."

If some minnows are hard to come by Chalstrom said he has plenty of night crawlers and expects leeches to be plentiful by week's end, although some bait dealers said leeches will be smaller to start the season, also impacted by cold water.

Ice-out dates

In general, northern Minnesota lakes lost or are losing their ice a few days behind average but a bit ahead of last year.

But lakes in Lake and Cook counties are still losing their ice, and some of the bigger, deeper lakes may not be fishable by Saturday. Best to check ahead with lodges or bait shops to make sure.

Here are some popular lake ice-out dates:

Big Sandy

  • 2019: April 25
  • Average: April 21.
  • Earliest: March 26. 2012
  • Latest: May 12, 2013

Fall Lake

  • 2019: April 26
  • Average: April 28.
  • Earliest: March 27, 2012
  • Latest: May 19, 1950

Mille Lacs

  • 2019: April 28
  • Average: April 25
  • Earliest: March 26, 2012
  • Latest: May 16, 2013

Winnibigoshish

  • 2019: April 29
  • Average: April 26
  • Earliest: March 28, 2012
  • Latest: May 17, 2013

Vermilion

  • 2019: April 30
  • Average: April 30
  • Earliest: March 28, 2012
  • Latest: May 23, 1950

Kabetogama

  • 2019: April 30
  • Average: April 29
  • Earliest: April 1, 2012
  • Latest: May 18, 1996

Leech

  • 2019: May 2
  • Average: April 28
  • Earliest: April 2, 2012
  • Latest: May 23, 1950

Lake of the Woods

  • 2019: Not officially open yet, some chunks of ice still floating in main lake.
  • Average: May 3
  • Earliest: April 8, 2012
  • Latest: May 21, 2014

Gunflint

  • 2019: Not officially open, still considerable ice coverage
  • Average: May 6
  • Earliest: March 23, 2012
  • Latest: June 3, 1936