Scratch the Itch Early with Rainy Lake’s Spring Bite

The ice fishing season and boat show season is in full swing. But it’s not too early to turn your attention to the spring open-water fishing opportunities on Rainy Lake. Soon, after ice-out (usually in late April), the shallow-water bite offers some exciting fun.

Minnesota’s walleye season closes at the end of February, but exceptions will apply along Ontario border waters, including the 90-mile stretch of the Rainy River that runs from International Falls to Baudette, where the river flows into Lake of the Woods. Here, spring fishing is fast and furious for walleyes—including the biggest specimens caught in the state with 10-pound fish reported.

The walleye season runs through April 13 before closing briefly for the peak spawning run and then it reopens in tandem with Minnesota’s statewide walleye opener on May 13. Also, because this fishery borders Ontario, both northern pike and smallmouth bass seasons remain open year ‘round (both species have closed seasons on the state’s non-border fisheries). Smallmouths and pike are plentiful in the Rainy River as well as in Rainy Lake.

As a bonus, be sure to add a shot at huge lake sturgeon. Monster specimens of this freshwater exotic are caught each year who target them as well as by walleye fishermen who hook them incidentally. Because very specific seasons and permits/tags apply to lake sturgeon, be sure to read the regulations carefully before planning your trip.

Anglers who want to get an early jump on the boating season can opt for late-April ice-out pike and smallmouths in Rainy Lake or plan a trip starting with the opener on May 13 and add walleyes to the mix. All three species offer fast action on Rainy Lake, both for incredible numbers as well as trophy potential. Not only is this fishery famously noted as one of the nation’s’ top smallie destinations, but it’s also consistently rated one of Minnesota’s best walleye lakes.

Big northern pike will hold in shallow, dark-bottom bays after ice-out. In these quickly warming sections of the lake, be sure to avoid water temps exceeding 60 degrees, which will push the pike out to deeper, cooler water. On inclement days or in colder water temps, choose slow-moving presentations to trigger strikes. Options like fluke- or stickbait-style soft plastics (in variations of smoke, grey, or white) rigged on a number 5 swimbait hooks are ideal. The bite improves in lockstep with several days of consistent weather—especially sunny skies—and more aggressive strategies such as jerkbaits or a white spinnerbait become go-to options. Choose a medium-action muskie or pike rod like St. Croix’s Legend Tournament Muskie, and spool up with 20- to 30-pound Sufix Siege mono or 832 Braid.

Both walleyes and smallmouths will relate exclusively to shallow shorelines and rocky/gravel shorelines, making them both easy to find and fun to catch. Pitching light jigs tipped with minnows or durable soft plastics on a medium-light spinning rod is tremendous. Or, cast a selection of small, shallow-diving crankbaits and jerkbaits along the rocky shorelines and points. Rainy Lake will deliver dozens of big bronzebacks at 15-19 inches, and just as many walleyes from “eaters” up to the 28-inchers. For my money, casting artificial lures and jigs on light tackle for the smallmouths and walleyes or the combination makes it an exciting outing.

At over 275,000 acres, the opportunities to explore excellent fishing spots are endless. About 20 percent of Rainy Lake is Minnesota water, with the remainder in Ontario. Anglers can fish exclusively in Minnesota or obtain proper Ontario licenses and documentation in order to fish both sides. In addition to an Ontario fishing license, it’s also necessary to apply in advance for a Remote Area Border Crossing permit (RABC) if you want to cross the “water border.”

Rainy Lake should be at the top of your list of places to fish in 2017. The spring action is excellent, and promises to kick off your open-water season with both numbers of fish and some really big ones.

For more information, visit Minnesota DNR at and Ontario fishing license at