Winnebago walleye crop looks impressive

Correspondent

Oshkosh, Wis. Local DNR fish crews have learned that the 2001
year-class of Lake Winnebago walleyes is the second largest since
records have been kept.

That’s good news for anglers. The 1996 year-class set a walleye
production record on the big lake and those fish are providing the
bulk of some very good action these days. As the 2001 year-class
grows into the “catchable” size range, the good fishing should
continue.

“The poor year-classes of 1999 and 2000 are history now,” said
Kendall Kamke, DNR senior fisheries biologist. “I actually had
several calls from anglers complaining about all of the big
walleyes. If only that was always the worst problem we had to
face.”

Lake Winnebago’s most successful spawn took place in the spring
of 1996. Those fish have matured from that ideal spawning season,
when 41.5 young-of-the-year were caught per trawl that fall.

The 2001 year-class ranks second with fall trawling results of
23.5 yearlings netted.

Other than 1996 and 2001, every other walleye year-class since
the mid-1980s has seen trawling results that fall into single
digits “per haul.”

The strongest year-classes come as a result of high water that
allows spawning walleyes to reach the backwater marshes.

Low snow accumulation this winter has resulted in low water
levels so far. Kamke said adult walleyes are not ready to spawn
yet, but unless water levels come up quickly on the Fox and Wolf
rivers, and stay there, this year’s production will likely be less
than last year.

So, for this fishing season and at least the next five, the 1996
hatch will dominate the Winnebago fishery. The warm winter has
benefited them, Kamke said.

“What the anglers are going to notice is that the fish are going
to be quite fat, quite healthy and real robust during the spring
run,” he said.

James Coon, vice president of chapter development of Walleyes
for Tomorrow, said he’s excited for another year better than the
last.

“Sturgeon fishermen saw a lot of what they thought were 4- to
5-pound walleyes,” he said. “It’s improved back to where it was
five or six years ago.”

The number of walleyes over 15 inches has been increasing since
1993, when estimates showed about 250,000 15-inch walleyes in Lake
Winnebago. Now, Kamke said, there are more than 1 million.

Hooking a walleye may be easier now than in the recent past, but
not all factors favor the angler.

Trout perch and emerald shiners, major staples of the walleye
diet, have hit their third year of record high numbers.

“Walleyes are not like bass, or northern pike, or muskies, which
will strike out of aggression, even though they’re not hungry,”
Kamke said. “When walleyes are stuffed full, the likelihood of
their chasing your lure is much reduced.”

This winter’s thin ice cover and light snowfall follows the
optimum spawning conditions of the spring of 2001.

“The water stayed high enough over the two to three weeks the
eggs needed to incubate,” Kamke said.

Only the spawning grounds farthest upstream flooded in 1999, he
said, where the 2001 harvest was above average.

Droughts in the late 1980s devastated the spawning cycles, and
the fish’s 14-year life span means walleyes over 24 inches long are
extremely rare.

Kamke credited Walleyes For Tomorrow, Shadows of the Wolf, and
the Otter Street Fishing Club for major capital and labor
contributions since the early 1990s to rehabilitation of
marshes.

“Natural and human activities had reduced, and in some cases
eliminated, these spawning marshes,” he said.

Coon said his group donated $850,000 to restore marshes.

“We restored over 3,000 acres up on the Wolf and Fox,” he said.
“Whatever it takes to get the water flowing.”

A boom shocking boat purchased by Walleyes for Tomorrow is now
with two others near the upstream beds to catch an early prediction
of the 2002 hatch. Light electrical currents released between two
electrodes temporarily stuns the walleyes, allowing fishery crews
to capture and count the fish.

Walleyes were not yet ready to spawn last week, Kamke said. The
water was about 37 degrees in the morning. It must be 42 degrees
for spawning to begin.

In August, September and October, DNR trawling runs help fishery
crews gather information used to make an official walleye
production estimate for the year. Those estimates are confirmed by
shoreline boom shocking runs.

To best manage the fish in the lake, Kamke said, “We need all
anglers to report a tagged fish as soon as they catch it.”

Those who do are mailed a brief history of where their fish was
spawned, where it’s lived, and an estimate of its age.

The DNR estimates 127,000 walleyes were harvested from Lake
Winnebago in 2001. There is a five-fish daily bag limit on the
lake, but there is no size limit.

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