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Walleyes: Beyond Mille Lacs

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It’s referred to as the premier walleye fishery in the state.

Lake of the Woods anglers might take offense to that, but most folks in the know in the Brainerd lakes area will agree that, at the very least, Lake Mille Lacs is the best walleye fishery in the area. And that’s saying something.

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There are other big-time walleye lakes in the area. In fact, Whitefish Chainers might argue that, with Mille Lacs being down a bit in recent years, Whitefish is king.

Mille Lacs did rebound nicely this past winter, and the outlook for the opener and the 2012 open-water season is good, the DNR says. That was the case with most every other lake in the area — and state — this year, Lake of the Woods included.

That bodes well for walleye — and northern pike — anglers throughout the area for the 2012 fishing opener. Yes, you probably can’t go wrong with Mille Lacs. But there are plenty of other options, too.

Take the Whitefish Chain. It might be the most important walleye fishery in the area — Mille Lacs included. It boasts one of the main walleye egg-stripping stations in the state, accounting for 693 quarts and about 86 million eggs for stocking purposes this past spring.

On Wednesday, the DNR was giving something back to the fishery north of Brainerd. Marc Bacigalupi, DNR fisheries supervisor in Brainerd, stocked 3.9 million walleye fry in the fishery. Of course, those fish won’t be a factor in the chain for years. But findings from the walleye-stripping process are reason for optimism.

“You can’t really tell much from the stripping station,” Bacigalupi said of how the process might translate to the opener across the area. “But you can tell something about what you think is going on in the Whitefish walleye population. We’re seeing lots of new recruits to the spawning run. A lot of untagged fish.”

Bacigalupi said that, in the previous seven years, the DNR tagged walleyes after they were released at the station just off the chain’s Delta Bay, on the Pine River. For numerous reasons, the DNR halted the process this year, he said.

“Fish are coming from all over the Whitefish Chain to come to the Pine River. We’re seeing nice, new recruitment,” Bacigalupi said. “There are a lot of new adults there. Males 15 inches and bigger and females 18 inches and bigger. A lot of fish coming in that we haven’t seen before and that bodes well. And I think the Whitefish walleye fishery was pretty good last year.”

The Whitefish Chain is on display at the station each spring. Although well off the beaten path near Pine River, it’s not unusual to see dozens of spectators on the docks at the station, hoping to see trophy walleyes. They’re rarely disappointed.

“There were some real beauties,” Bacigalupi said of some of the walleyes that found their way into the DNR nets at the station this spring. “One I saw was 31 inches — about 15 pounds. When they’re full of eggs they’re just pigs. A good two pounds of eggs, maybe three. So now it would probably be a 12-pounder instead of a 15-pounder.”

But Whitefish is about more than lunker walleyes.

“When Mike (assistant area fisheries supervisor Mike Knapp) wrote a study in ‘06, there was an estimate of 24,000 adult walleyes in the Whitefish Chain. It was the first version of this study that’s continuing now. And that’s just adult fish — 15 inches and above. Just adult spawners that are running,” Bacigalupi said.

Dan “Walleyedan” Eigen’s job is to put anglers on fish. For the opener, he’s putting his faith in what has become his home lake over the years — Gull Lake, likely the Brainerd area’s most popular waterway.

“I think it will be an awesome opener. The water temperature should be prime and the walleyes are going to be eating,” said Eigen, adding that he and four others will be guiding out of Lost Lake Lodge on Gull the morning of the opener.

Bacigalupi agreed, adding that Gull is fully stocked from the egg take this spring.

“Gull looks real good. On Gull, how many fish do you see in that nine- to 10-inch range biting in the (Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull)? There’s a ton of them out there. Hopefully those will make it through and make good year classes of 15, 16, 17 inches that everyone wants to see. When I look at netting surveys I see good numbers out there. The same for North Long. It’s getting good netting numbers.

“It was 53 degrees out on Gull Lake yesterday,” Bacigalupi said Wednesday of the water temperature on Gull. “That should be helpful. It should produce active fish. Even panfish. Not everyone goes to fish for walleye.”

Yes, while walleyes are the headliner, this is also the opener for northern pike.

“That’s a nice feature of Round and Gull,” Bacigalupi said of a strong pike population in the two lakes north of Brainerd. “They’re getting nice, big fish. Even in the Gull River. And I’ve heard good things on the Mission lakes about pike.”

So where will Bacigalupi be fishing on the opener?

“I don’t know if I want to give that away,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m not going to a secret spot or anything — North Long. It produces fish. They’re there. And it’s the closest thing to town, too. If you transport North Long Lake to anywhere else in the state it would be a premier destination. It’s just one of those things.”

On Mille Lacs, anglers are reminded that walleye 17 to 28 inches must be immediately released. The possession limit is four fish, with one longer than 28 inches. Also, a night-fishing closure begins at 10 p.m. on Monday on the lake and lasts from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily through June 10. Night fishing on Mille Lacs begins at 12:01 a.m. June 11.

“Mille Lacs is going to be good. That’s not my territory. But you can’t ignore the elephant in the room there,” Bacigalupi said. “And Round was pretty good last winter. That’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked. And the South Longs were good last year. Maybe that will continue. And one that people forget about is the Mississippi River, especially early — in the creek mounds and even below the dam. So there are shore fishing options.”

And for those who travel to the “other” main walleye lake in the state, the outlook is good, too.

“The opener looks good,” Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said of the famed border lake. “Winter and spring fishing was phenomenal — no reason to think the fish won’t eat, and there are a lot of them around.”

All around.

BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at brian.peterson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.

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