The promised land of South Dakota walleye fishing

The evidence is indisputable:

Anglers can’t keep a secret.

They say they can, they say they will, but the inexorable pull
to unholster their tongues and spill a tall tale about the honey
hole they’ve found and the fish they caught is too much to
resist.

That’s the word more or less of Matt Hubers, a fisheries
biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in Webster.

“The word gets out so fast nowadays,” Hubers said, referring to
a hot fishery. “There are really are no secrets anymore. With cell
phones, the Internet, newspapers and other media, the word just
spreads.”

Exhibit A: The Glacial Lakes region of northeast South Dakota.
In recent years, the region has had some of the best walleye, perch
and pike fishing in the upper Midwest. That fact has not been lost
on Minnesotans, who’ve been known to travel hither and yon to catch
a mess of walleyes.

“It’s true, we’re seeing more and more people from more and more
states,” Hubers said.

“Even our residents are traveling hundreds of miles to fish
here. There’s no such thing as a local fishery anymore.”

The good news, according to Hubers, is that the region’s many
lakes are still healthy despite intense angling pressure and
subsequent lofty harvest rates in recent years. “In general, we
should have a good year of open-water fishing,” Hubers said. “We’ve
harvested a lot of nice walleyes in the last few years but fish
numbers are pretty strong.”

Glacial lakes history

In the late 1980’s, most of northeast South Dakota was prime
deer and pheasant country.

Cattail sloughs were just that sloughs. The spring snow melt
provided excellent habitat for nesting waterfowl, but by early
summer most basins were bone dry.

Fishing pressure, meanwhile, was concentrated on the area’s
natural bodies of water, the so-called Glacial Lakes: Enemy Swim,
Pickerel, Roy and Big Stone all located in the extreme northeastern
corner of South Dakota.

Then the rains came. Small wetlands were transformed into
full-blown lakes. Names were attached to each. Walleye and perch
populations exploded, as did the number of anglers. Word spread
like wild fire. Record harvest rates followed. Fishing restrictions
were imposed.

“The amount of rain that fell throughout the 1990’s certainly
was a boon,” Hubers said. “Typically, our wet cycles don’t last.
This one did, and we’ve seen how that can impact fishing.”

What Hubers and other fisheries biologists hope to avert is a
boom-and-bust cycle. “The truth is, we don’t know how long this can
last. Angling success breeds angling expectations. Right now,
angling expectations are high, but “

The problem

The problem, as Hubers sees it, is as old as the hills: Too many
anglers are taking too many fish with too much regularity. “When
one lake gets hot, we’re seeing anglers take limits day after day.
That can’t last. We are too harvest-orientated, and one way or
another that will stop.”

An example: Waubay Lake in Day County. What was once a
medium-sized wetland has grown to an 18,000-acre lake. The
combination of excellent spawning habitat and available food turned
the lake into a top-drawer walleye fishery.

“Waubay has gotten so much media attention in the last few years
it was just a matter of time before things cooled off,” Hubers
said. “It’s still a good walleye and perch fishery, but the size
structure of the fish has definitely changed. There’s still a lot
of fish, but not as many big fish, which is consistent with many
other lakes in this region.”

Added Hubers: “Tell people to practice catch and release and
selective harvest. We don’t want to limit opportunity, but at the
same time no one really needs a freezer full of fish. Just take
enough for a meal or two.”

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