BEMIDJI, Minn. – No official data to support it, but Grand Rapids, MN’s Tom Neustrom has likely had a hand in more Walleye Opener celebrations than any other guide in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“I’ve been involved in five Walleye Openers,” said the popular guide with perhaps the fullest calendar in the business. “I’ve worked with past governors Tim Pawlenty, Mark Dayton and Jesse Ventura.” And, as you can imagine, there’s a yarn or two spun around the Ventura experience. We’ll just say the dynamic politician oft pontificated while smoking fat cigars on the shores of Sugar Lake.
On Saturday, May 14th, 2022 – the long-awaited official Minnesota Walleye Opener – Neustrom will be sharing secret spots with sitting governor Tim Walz on walleye-rich Lake Winnibigoshish (aka Winnie) located in the Chippewa National Forest region and Leech Lake Reservation.
From an economic standpoint, walleye fishing injects $300 million annually into the state coffers through direct general tax revenue. Additionally, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) receives millions of dollars in annual fishing license receipts raised from 1.4 million anglers. Indeed, the pursuit of Minnesota’s state fish is an essential cash cow.
To Neustrom, an inductee into both the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame, the Walleye Opener carries deep meaning. “It’s a tremendous tradition. Folks get together to enjoy each other’s company, even if the bite isn’t what they hoped. And I think the event demonstrates our governor’s interest in the importance of the outdoors.
“It’s an honor. It means a lot to me personally.”
Due to a belabored winter and obnoxious spring, Neustrom expects the ice on Winnie to be out just days before the Walleye Opener. There’s even a chance the main lake will be cloaked in rotting ice, concentrating efforts in Winnie arteries like Cut Foot Sioux, The Gap, and adjacent waters.
Regardless, says Neustrom, it’ll be a jig bite. “The cold water should keep walleyes in that 5- to 10-foot range, where they’ll take a jig and minnow combo. If a quick cold front moves in, they could drop into 15-feet or so.”
Neustrom continues: “I expect the males to be active and females either in, or just post spawn. So, you want to be fishing in spawning habitat, like gravel and rock rubble – not the big boulders.” And for those anglers who have their sites on Winnie, Neustrom suggests targeting areas like Muskie Bay, High Banks, Tamarack Flats, North Shore at Pigeon River, Stony Point, Mallard Point, Sugar Point and Ravens Point. Said locations afford flexibility whether you want to fish in or out of the wind. (Note: On Winnie, Neustrom prefers a quartering wind, not direct onshore, which affords an ideal drifting situation.)
In what Neustrom calls a “controlled drift,” he rolls with the waves, feathering with his electric trolling motor to manage speed and direction. His armament of choice is Northland’s fabled Fire-Ball Jig – the glorious orb that forever changed walleye jigging.
“On a shallow drift, I use a 1/16-ounce Fire-Ball, going up to 1/8-ounce in a chop. The Parrot color is my longtime standby and, historically, Watermelon has been a winner on Winnie. I’ll have a couple rods rigged with Deep-Vee Jigs, too. They’re very effective at cutting through turbulence and finding the bottom.”
The learned guide has a springtime trick for you as well: “Everyone loads up on lake-run shiner minnows. I carry a bunch as well. But if the bite is exceptionally tough, you’ll want to downsize the bait. Grab a scoop or two of chubs. Sometimes, they make all the difference.”
His final words of wisdom, regardless of what body of water you choose for the Walleye Opener, is to lean into a bite. Don’t set right away. Let the fish eat it and pull back with a smooth hookset.
NEUSTROM’S GEAR CHECKLIST:
ROD: St. Croix Victory LITE-WEIGHT 6’10” medium-light, extra-fast spinning VTS610MLXF
ROD: St. Croix Victory MAX-TACTICAL 7’3” medium, extra-fast spinning VTS73MXF (6-20 lb line, 3/16-1/2 oz lure)
REEL: Daiwa Fuego LT (2500)
LINE: Daiwa J-Braid Grand (6lb) with fluorocarbon leader
LINE: Daiwa J-Fluoro Samurai (6 lb)
LURE: Northland Fire-Ball Jig (1/6- and 1/8-ounce)
LURE: Northland Deep-Vee Jig (1/16- and 1/8-ounce)
For help planning a fishing trip, or to order a free copy of the 2022-23 Minnesota Fishing Guide, travelers can visit exploreminnesota.com or call 888-VISITMN. For information on public water accesses, fishing piers, fishing licenses and more, visit mndnr.gov or call the DNR Information Center, 888-MINN-DNR. For more information on the Governor’s Fishing Opener, watch for updates in the coming weeks at mngovernorsopener.com.