Red Lake walleyes fair game in 2006

Red Lake Band hasn’t decided how it will resume its walleye
harvest

By Rob Drieslein

Editor

Bemidji, Minn. Barring any unforeseen complications, Red Lake
walleye fillets again could grace the plates of state and tribal
anglers by walleye opener 2006.

Rendezvousing last Wednesday during a regularly scheduled Red
Lake technical committee meeting, fisheries managers from the Red
Lake Band of Ojibwe Indians and the Minnesota DNR concluded that
the Red Lake walleye fishery can reopen for harvest in 2006.

Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji, said
technical committee now has two years to determine the how-to’s of
that harvest. State anglers definitely should not expect the
statewide walleye harvest regulation by 2006, he said.

Walleye abundance on Red Lake has increased dramatically from
the mid-1990s when the walleye population crashed following years
of overharvest by state and tribal fishing. In 1997, the band
discontinued commercial walleye netting on Lower Red and the
portion of Upper Red that falls within its reservation boundary.
The band ceased subsistence netting in 1998, the same year the
state dropped its walleye bag limit to two fish. The state placed a
complete moratorium on Red Lake walleye harvest in 1999.

That same year, the state and bands embarked upon a recovery
plan that included a massive walleye stocking effort. In 1999 the
recovery effort stocked 41 million walleye fry into the lake. Two
additional stockings, of 31 million and 32 million fry
respectively, occurred in 2001 and 2003.

In addition, the fishing moratorium protected two “modest
year-classes” of naturally produced walleyes from 1996-97. Those
fish now are in the 24- to 26-inch range and will be an important
factor in the continued recovery of Red, Drewes said. That said,
managers are closely watching the 2004 year-class of walleyes the
first year-class that the stocked fish of 1999 will contribute to
the fishery.

“Those 1999s are reaching maturity for the first time, and
people are seeing these as 16- to 20-inch fish near full maturity
in about 40 percent in the upper basin,” Drewes said. “This spring
will mark the first time since 1985 that Red Lake will see a spawn
of this size.”

Asked if the technical committee was jumping the gun on talk of
reopening the fishery prior to a a solid spawn, Drewes noted that
unforeseen complications could still change the outlook.

“We project that we will have achieved our main recovery goals
to the point where we can have fishing by 2006 fishing season,” he
said. “The consensus is that both jurisdiction will be looking at
it resuming fishing barring any unforeseen changes at that
time.”

The Red Lake fisheries technical committee is composed of
representatives of the Red Lake Band’s DNR; the Band’s Fisheries
Association; Minnesota DNR’s Section of Fisheries; the Bureau of
Indian Affairs; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; and
the University of Minnesota, Department of Fisheries and
Wildlife.

The Committee, Drewes said, will now focus its efforts on
developing a protocol for setting safe harvest levels and devising
a “suite” of harvest management options that could be implemented
when the lake is re-opened to walleye fishing. A memorandum of
understanding from 1999 between the state and band requires that
both sides work together to determine a safe harvest level.

Safe allowable harvest will be determined on a per acre basis,
Drewes said. About 48,000 of Red Lake’s total 275,000 acres falls
outside the reservation, Drewes said. For perspective, on a
healthy, naturally reproducing walleye lakes in Minnesota, harvest
typically is sustainable in the 2 to 4 pounds per acre range, he
said.

Drewes said the Band and the DNR will be working very closely
with the public, including local business interests, to determine
harvest management strategies that are “both sustainable and
acceptable.”

He called the partnership between the state and band on Red Lake
“successful,” and noted that though the tone of the recent meeting
was positive, all sides recognize a lot of work remains to be done.
While participating in population censusing on the lake in
September, Drewes said he saw 40 walleyes per net lift compared to
2 or 3 in the mid-1990s.

“The walleye biomass is as high as it’s been 14 to 15 years, so
we’ve got a huge eating machine out there it’s a fishery in a state
of flux,” he said.

The DNR reminded state anglers that during the winter, while
people are ice fishing for crappies, they likely will catch some
walleyes. The agency urges anglers to release these fish to give
them an opportunity to spawn and continue the recovery.

Tribe in agreement

The Red Lake Tribal Government will meet with band members in
the upcoming year to decide how it will resume its walleye fishing
on Red Lake in ’06.

“The tribe has made no decisions at this time,” says Dave
Conner, Red Lake DNR administrative officer.

“We are very encouraged by the progress that has been made in
the past five years. Barring unforeseen changes in current
population trends, we fully expect that walleye harvest will resume
in 2006,” he said.

Commercial netting in Red Lake for walleyes and other species
had been a mainstay of the tribal economy for decades. Conner says
there has been generally good compliance with the moratorium.

The plan to re-open the lake in 2006 is based upon expectations
of good natural reproduction beginning in 2004. Conner says the
state and tribal technical committee working on the walleye
recovery expects the spawn to produce a large hatch.

In 2006, the walleyes stocked in 2001 will join the spawning
population. They, too, are projected to be productive spawners. At
that point, the spawning population will contain three walleye
year-classes. Conner says biologists project that spawns will
produce at least 1,000 fry per littoral acre. Historically, Red
Lake has been a productive walleye fishery. Both the upper and
lower basins are fertile and relatively shallow, creating excellent
walleye habitat.

Although the plans to re-open the fishery are based upon future
projections, Conner says state and tribal biologists are not
jumping the gun. Stocking efforts have been closely monitored.

Available data shows that the walleye population is on track for
recovery.

“It’s definitely back, but we need to wait a couple of years
before we resume fishing,” Conner says.

Field Editor Shawn Perich contributed to this story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *