Nate Stark of Elbow Lake was loading up his boat on Lake Mary near Alexandria by about 8:15 on Saturday morning.
Stark was ready to warm up for a bit before getting back in the boat later in the day. He had been on the water since 6 a.m. and caught a few northern pike and a couple smaller walleyes that all went back in the lake.
“It was pretty slow,” Stark said.
The fishing was not all that productive for Stark, but the overall activity on some of the Alexandria area’s popular lakes for the Minnesota walleye and pike opener looked pretty standard. If the COVID-19 pandemic kept some people away, it was not noticeable at local boat launches on lakes Mary, Oscar and Stowe in Douglas County.
“Early this morning, I would say there was just as many as ever, if not more,” Stark said of the boats on Lake Mary, a body of water he has fished many other times on opener. “I’d say I’m always excited (for the opener), but I was less prepared ahead of time this year. Just not going places and not getting to the store.”
The south public boat access on Mary was filled to capacity on Saturday morning, with trucks and trailers lining parts of the gravel road that leads up to the parking lot.
Trailers lined the tiny public access off of Highway 27 on Lake Oscar, and Stowe Lake Road Northwest still had trucks and trailers parked on the side of the gravel road at about 9:30 after a steady rain moved through.
Anglers who got on the water during the night or early-morning hours just after daylight were greeted with cool but calm weather conditions. Cloudy skies and a temperature of 37 degrees with winds of 4-miles-per-hour hung in the air at 6:30 Saturday morning before winds picked up more as the day went on.
If the colder weather cooled the walleye bite for anglers in the area, there were still some panfish to catch in the shallows. Gordy Dirkes and Matt Sauer of Albany were pulling in sunfish intermingled with some nice crappies from the shore on Lake Oscar.
Drake Herd and Mike Frisch are both veteran anglers from the Alexandria area who have years of guiding under their belt. They both reported similar reports as Stark -- the bite was pretty slow, but anglers were eager and happy to be on the water.
“I almost think there was a little bit bigger crowd than normal,” Frisch said after opening the season on Lake Mary. “Had we had a nicer day, I think it would have been a booming crowd. I was in Christopherson’s (Bait and Tackle in Alexandria) Friday, and it was a zoo. I almost think that if you look at what fishing license sales are doing in Minnesota this year, there’s people fishing that either haven’t fished before or haven’t fished in a while.”
As of May 4, angling license sales of all types in Minnesota were at 354,080, up 45% from the same time last year.
“I talked to a couple of my fishing buddies from up north, one from Brainerd and one from Bemidji, (Friday) night,” Frisch said. “They both said that the bait shops up there were sold out of shiners and people were out and about. I don’t think it’s just here. I think it was all over.
“On opener, people are so anxious to get on the water that sometimes there can be tension. To me, today it was like people were just glad to be out there.”
Frisch was not surprised with Saturday’s slow walleye bite, given the cold weather. He likes water temperatures to be at 55-56 degrees. The warmest he saw on Saturday was 52 degrees.
“The cool thing about spring is we get two nice days and things stabilize,” Frisch said. “The Alexandria lakes have good populations of fish. We just need some stable weather, and they’re going to bite. They’re there and they’re ready.”
Herd opened up his season on Long Lake in Douglas County. It was not a fast bite, but the walleyes he did catch came with a jig and a minnow in depths from 6-9 feet.
“I would say overall (crowds) were probably the same, maybe a few more people,” Herd said. “It seems like people were in pretty good moods. It was raining and snowing earlier this morning, and there was still quite a few boats out. I don’t think a ton of people are working right now, and they took advantage of it and came out. It’s good.”
Many anglers were still able to fish in spite of the pandemic, but there are bound to be those who were not able to travel. The Minnesota DNR repeatedly encouraged people ahead of the opener to fish near their homes this weekend, and Herd did feel that personally.
“The Minnesota fishing opener is big on family and tradition,” he said. “It’s always good. One thing is that my brother didn’t travel up from the cities. He’s an engineer at 3M. That was a little bit of a bummer, but overall it’s fun to get out and catch walleyes. I was excited to just get out with my dad and get some.”
This is just the beginning. A whole summer awaits anglers who seem this year to be especially eager to get on the water with so many other entertainment options shut down due to COVID-19. For those fishing the Alexandria area, the best fishing is likely yet to come.
“I agree 100%,” Herd said. “This next week still looks a little cold in the 40s and 50s, but as soon as we start getting some weather in the 60s and touching the 70s, I think the fish are really going to fire around here over the next couple weeks.”