Go fish: Opener imminent on Lake Minnetonka

Local experts discuss fishing, stocking walleye and the impact of zebra mussels

David Ottinger and his son Callaway compete May 6 in the 49th annual Minnesota Bound Crappie Fishing Contest at Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Jason Jenkins)

Bass, walleyes and muskies, oh, my. Fishing opener is nearly here.

At 14,000 acres, Lake Minnetonka is the largest lake in the Twin Cities metro area and boasts a large and diverse fish community, which is good news for the many anglers gearing up to head out May 13 for another season on Minnesota’s busiest lake.

“Lake Minnetonka continues to be a popular fishing location for muskies, walleyes and bass,” said Kristan Maccaroni, fishery specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

The population of northern pike is also in high abundance, Maccaroni said, and a healthy supply of sunfish and crappies provide year-round fishing opportunities. The lake also draws multiple bass fishing tournaments each year.

Minnesota DNR fisheries began monitoring Lake Minnetonka’s fish population in 1949, and today they conduct gillnet surveys during even-numbered years.

“I’m continually surprised at how stable Minnetonka is,” Maccaroni said.

Gregg Schroeder, owner of Schroeder’s Guiding Service, holds up a bass caught last fall on Lake Minnetonka. Schroeder has been a fishing guide on the lake for the past 31 years. (Submitted photo)

That’s good news for Gregg Schroeder, who’s been a fishing guide on the lake for the past 31 years. Schroeder said he began hosting fishing outings in high school after tourists started asking for his advice.

“People were renting boats and not catching fish, so they asked me for help,” he said.

In 2016, Schroeder’s Guiding Service led 215 fishing trips on Lake Minnetonka between Schroeder and eight other guides.

“We know where the fish are at and what they’re biting on, so we’ll just go to location after location and put on as many fish as we can,” Schroeder said, noting that the lake’s great muskie and bass fishing draws people from all over the country, and sometimes, the world.

As far as which fish bite when, Schroeder has the following advice:

“In May, we do a fair number of walleye trips. As the summer progresses and the water gets warmer, the walleyes get harder and harder to catch, so then we actually focus a lot on the bass and northerns most of the summer. And then August, September and October are prime for the muskie season,” Schroeder said.

One trend Schroeder has observed over the years is that muskies are getting more difficult to catch due to the increasing popularity of muskie fishing on the lake.

“It’s still good, but it’s getting tougher,” Schroeder said. “That’s the biggest trend I’ve seen. The pan fishing has been steady. The bass fishing has been good, and the pike fishing is very good.”

Nate Krengel holds up a crappie he caught May 6 while taking part in the 49th annual Minnesota Bound Crappie Fishing Contest at Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Jason Jenkins)

When asked if he had any other tips to offer for fisherman headed out for the opener, Schroeder had this to say:

“From what I’m seeing, I think there’s going to be a lot of fish caught on the outside weed lines, on points. … Kind of your standard stuff in that 13-16 foot range. … The bass are still up in the shallows and all the pike are going to be over the most green, active weeds you can find,” he said. “And don’t forget about the crappie bite because it’s still going really good.”

The DNR regularly stocks fish in Lake Minnetonka, walleyes in even-numbered years and muskies in odd-numbered years, with adjustments when needed.

The DNR stocked more than 3,600 muskellunge fingerlings (one to six months old) in 2015 and around 163,600 walleye fingerlings in 2016.

The state of walleye fishing on the lake is also being boosted by the Westonka Walleye Program, a nonprofit organization that has been stocking the lake with walleye since 2014. Outside of the DNR, it is the only walleye stocking program on the lake.

Mound resident Johnny Range founded the program in 2013.

“This whole thing started with me and a couple of buddies sitting around a campfire wondering what we could do to make the fishing better,” Range said, noting that Mille Lacs Lake will once again be catch-and-release for walleyes this year as the DNR tries to rebuild the population on that lake. It’s a fate Range doesn’t want for his home lake.

Walleye stocking is especially important on Lake Minnetonka, where natural reproduction is limited for the fish species.

So far, in 2017, the Westonka Walleye Program has raised more than $53,000 to stock the lake. Last year, around $50,000 raised and used to stock the lake with 32,000 fish (4,200 pounds) of walleyes larger than 8 inches. Range said each fish costs about $1.70.

Range said Westonka Walleye likes to stock fish that are between 8-13 inches so that they have a much better chance of avoiding predators and growing to a harvestable size.

“Stocking the larger sized fish is more expensive, but it’s more successful,” he said.

Range also noted Westonka Walleye’s “voluntary sportsman’s slot,” which asks fishermen to release walleye if they are smaller than 16 inches long.

“Going forward for 2017 and 2018, my goal is to double the pounds of walleyes stocked in this lake, meaning we’re going to put in twice as many pounds as the Minnesota DNR does,” Range said.

For more info, visit 472fish.org or go to the Westonka Walleye Program’s Facebook page.

Zebra mussels

As fishermen prepare to hit the lake, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District ramps up its messaging on aquatic invasive species, especially when it comes to zebra mussels.

Jill Sweet, an aquatic invasive species technician with Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, teaches guests about zebra mussels and other invasive species at a May 6 kids fishing clinic at Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Jason Jenkins)

“That’s definitely the highest risk thing for spreading from Lake Minnetonka to other lakes, so that’s definitely one that we want people to be aware of,” said Jill Sweet, an aquatic invasive species technician for the watershed district.

The watershed district has been monitoring the lake’s population of zebra mussels, which are small, fingernail-sized invasive animals that attach to solid surfaces in water, since they were first detected in 2010 in the lake.

According to findings released in April 2016, the zebra mussel population topped out at an estimated 200,000 zebra mussels per square meter in 2014 in Wayzata Bay, where there was an increase in water clarity and a decrease in algae (chlorophyll) and phosphorus. The watershed district said those changes are not as prevalent in bays with lower zebra mussel populations. In Halsted Bay, which has 28 zebra mussels per square meter, the watershed district said there has been little change to the water.

Zebra mussels (Submitted photo)

“The western areas have a lot more algae that zebra mussels don’t like, so we’re not seeing as high of populations there. But with the more clear water bays on the eastern side and in the middle, those are very high populations for zebra mussels,” Sweet said.

According to the watershed district, zebra mussels can cause problems for lakeshore residents and recreationists. Homeowners that take lake water to water lawns can have their intakes clogged. Mussels may attach to motors and possibly clog cooling water areas. Shells can cause cuts and scrapes if they grow large enough, and shells can cut fishing line. Zebra mussels can also attach to native mussels, killing the native species.

Zebra mussels also filter plankton from the surrounding water, which can increase water clarity and cause more aquatic vegetation to grow at deeper depths and in more dense stands. If a lake has high numbers of mussels over large areas, this filter feeding could impact the food chain, reducing food for larval fish.

“We’re trying to study and look at the long-term impacts, and a lot of that’s kind of yet to be known as far as how it’s going to affect the food web,” Sweet said.

More than 200 Minnesota lakes, rivers and wetlands are designated as being infested with zebra mussels, which are often overlooked and spread by hitching rides on boats and other watercraft equipment.

Eric Fieldseth, aquatic invasive species program manager for Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, examines a Lake Minnetonka dock for the presence of zebra mussels. (Submitted photo)

The DNR encourages boaters to prevent the spread of zebra mussels by cleaning weeds and debris from their boat, removing drain plugs and keeping the plugs out while traveling and disposing of unused bait in the trash before leaving a water access. For boats left in the water more than 24 hours, or known to have been in infested waters, owners are encouraged to spray their boat with high-pressure water, rinse with hot water and dry for at least five days. For additional recommendations, see mndnr.gov/AIS.

Sweet said two invasives that the watershed district has not seen in Lake Minnetonka but is keeping an out for are starry stonewort, which can produce dense mats of grass-like algae on the water’s surface, and spiny waterflea, a microscopic zooplankton that invade lakes and can take over the bottom of the food chain.

For more information about MCWD’s program on aquatic invasive species, visit minnehahacreek.org/AIS.

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]