As an Illinoisan that has never attended a true fishing opening-day event, I have to admit, the Minnesota Governors Opener was quite an experience. Celebrating the first day of the open-water walleye season in Minnesota, this event was a mix of media professionals, dignitaries, tourism professionals and as you would have guessed — the Governor of Minnesota Tim Walz. Some may perceive this as public relations hype, but it’s more than that.
Walleye fishing is a tradition that runs deep in Minnesotans. It’s part of the culture. So what better way to celebrate a part of Minnesota’s heritage than with some hoopla on the opening day of the season. Hosted in a different location each year, this event also gives tourism bureaus across the state the chance to bid and host the event. This not only brings in hundreds of media influencers, it shines a spotlight on the host region and promotes what the resources and attractions they have to offer.
Albert Lea Minnesota was the host for 2019. Located about two hours south of the Twin Cities, Albert Lea embodies small town, upper Midwest America— complete with a shop-laden downtown, natural parks, and several beautiful lakes full of fish.
The Friday night celebration pertained of great food, live music and Governor Walz shaking hands and taking photos with the masses that had descended upon the Norman Rockwellesque community turning the sleepy downtown main street into a bustling festival. The American Legion served as home base where media attendees were paired with their fishing guides, or “hosts”. I connected with my hosts Justin Hansen and his wife Nicole. We hit it off right away, and formulated our plan for the next day.
Saturday May 12 was opening day, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In Minnesota, it’s a big deal. Hardcore walleye anglers are on the water at Midnight and dropping their lines in at 12:01. Don’t get me wrong…I live for walleye fishing. But I also didn’t have a compelling reason to hit the lake in the middle of the night. We did, however, decide to launch early before the access ramps became packed. After grabbing bait, we were shocked to have the boat launch all to ourselves at 6:15 am, and even more shocked that there were only a few boats on the lake. Good news for us.
After a quick troll, Justin and I decided to pitch some jigs near a road-bridge channel. Better yet, that channel was dredged and Justin knew of some deep water. Bingo.
We found the sweet spot and quickly dropped a jig and minnow down. And it wasn’t long until Justin hooked into good fish. With net in hand, I squinted into the early morning water and made out the telltale white fin spot of a nice walleye. Once it was in the net and high fives were dished out, we realized just how nice… a 22 ¾ inch walleye. Definitely what we media guys call a “photo fish”, one big enough to get anglers excited. But to me, putting good numbers in the boat is the name of the game. And that’s exactly what we proceed to do. Justin and Nicole rigged quarter ounce lead jigs with minnow, and I tied on a 3/16 ounce Drop Tg Tungsten jig by Clam Pro Tackle, tipped with minnow. For the next hour and a half we just hammered a mixed bag— more walleye, Northern Pike, crappie, perch, even a handful of yellow bullheads.
We shot over to the docks of Edgewater Park, where Governor Walz kicked off the day with a press-packed ceremony. From our lakeside seats we enjoyed the pomp and circumstance. When the applause subsided, it was time for everyone to hit the water.
Getting back to our honey hole, it quickly became clear that word had spread where a big walleye was caught…because within a half an hour, we were surrounded by about 20 boats. We actually didn’t mind as the intention was to create a media frenzy on the water, but it still made us chuckle. We got back down to business— hooking and boating more of the same, as well as a dandy pike, and rounded out the specie checklist with a 12-pound carp.
I love diversity of species when fishing. It provides an element of surprise, as you never know what you might hook into. And Fountain Lake is no exception. As a man-made reservoir, it has mostly rocky, rip-rap shoreline, with a little underwater structure. When people think Minnesota angling, the perception of north woods glacial lakes comes to mind. But don’t overlook these regions like Albert Lea. They are true Midwest treasures that offer great fishing as well as some of the nicest people on the planet.
As it turned out, that first walleye was the biggest one caught that day, earning us accolades at this time-honored tradition.
Check out photos below. And get more information at ExploreAlbertLea.com.
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