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Minnows may be hard to find for Saturday's Minnesota walleye opener

Minnows, like these spot tailed shiners, may be hard to come by for Saturday's Minnesota walleye fishing opener. A cool spring following a winter that saw fish die-offs in some shallow lakes and ponds has slowed minnow trapping. (Forum News Service file photo)

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."

Hunter Schoenrock of Christopherson Bait Shop in Alexandria said they were planning on getting a delivery of minnows in tomorrow, Thursday.

“Three different sizes of suckers, fatheads and hopefully some shiners,” Schoenrock said.

The spottail shiners in particular are always in high demand.

“I don’t know what it is, but walleyes like lake shiners the best,” Schoenrock said.

Bait shops in the state had a hard time keeping up with that demand for shiners heading into last year’s opener, and this year looks like it could be more of the same.

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 spottails, 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," said 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."

(Eric Morken of the Echo Press contributed to this piece)