DNR pitches walleye plan for Leech Lake

Associate Editor

Walker, Minn. Earlier this year, the DNR posted signs on one of
Minnesota’s more popular fishing holes stating new rules might soon
be in place for the coming fishing season. Earlier this week, the
agency proposed special regulations including an 18- to 28-inch
protected slot and a four-fish limit for Leech Lake walleyes in
northern-central Minnesota.

“Our objective with this is just to protect the brood stock
until other year-classes begin spawning,” said Harlan Fierstine,
DNR area fisheries supervisor in Walker. While the current number
of spawners in the 112,000-acre lake is considered good, “If we get
off a good year-class, it’s still six years until that year-class
is ready to spawn,” he said.

That’s why the 18- to 28-inch protected slot, along with a
four-fish limit, was picked over other options in the DNR’s “tool
box” approach to special regulations, Fierstine said. Those tool
box regs include a 17- to 26-inch slot; a minimum size of 17
inches; or a three-walleye limit.

“We considered several other regulations in our modeling, but
deemed them either too restrictive for anglers or not restrictive
enough to protect the brood stock,” he said.

The special regulations, which likely would be in effect for at
least eight years, could protect the brood stock in a lake that
hasn’t had a good year-class of walleyes since 1997, according to
the DNR. Biologists point out that the lake’s spawners have
produced good numbers of little fish that failed to survive that
first year.

Also necessary for strong year-classes of walleyes are “positive
spawning conditions, a relatively mild spring, a good forage base,
and low predation, which on Leech Lake comes from both larger fish
and a growing cormorant colony,” according to the DNR.

Larry Anderson, a Leech Lake walleye fishing guide and chair of
the Leech Lake Association’s Fishing Committee, said the lake
association is on board with the DNR’s proposal. In fact, he said,
a few years ago some groups and businesses with interest in the
lake “threw out an 18-inch minimum.

“But I don’t think the DNR saw the seriousness at that point;
they were still hoping for another good year-class to hatch,”
Anderson said. He said the organization was ready to accept any
proposal the department brought forth.

“Something needs to be done, and we want to leave it to the
people who know what needs to be done,” he said.

Anderson also is part of a task force of Leech Lake
stakeholders. He said there are some members of that group composed
of resorters, business owners, fishing guides, and government
officials who don’t agree with the DNR’s new proposal.

“There still are some that don’t believe there needs to be
special regulations,” Anderson said. “They think it’s the fault of
cormorants.”

Anderson, a guide for City Dock Launch Service, likes the
special regulation proposal.

“I think it’s a good one,” he said. “I’m a guide on the lake and
I know we’ll go through tough times but in the long haul, for our
children and grandchildren, it will all pay off.”

The proposed special regulations for Leech are just part of a
broad approach to improving the walleye population and determining
why the lake’s been unable to produce a quality year-class for
several years. Other possibilities include predation on walleyes
from a increasing double-crested cormorant population.

The DNR recently joined the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
Wildlife Services in a study of cormorants’ effect on Leech’s
walleyes. The band secured a federal grant grant for more than
$200,000 for the study. Other groups will contribute via funding or
in-kind contributions. Fierstine said results from the study could
be three years away.

“Determining the food habits of cormorants is the easy thing to
do,” Fierstine said. “Tying it back to impacts on the fishery is
the difficult part.”

The DNR also is considering stocking marked walleye fry in the
lake to help determine how many fry are being hatched naturally,
Fierstine said. However, “we don’t really have a plan in place
yet,” he said.

Developing and maintaining fish habitat also is a concern the
agency is addressing. The Leech Lake Association has made that a
priority; it’s been part of the groups long-range management
planning. Anderson said the association’s efforts have included
protecting “sensitive” areas of the lake mostly in shallow, weedy
areas from development dangers.

Anderson said the association sent questionnaires to some 1,600
property owners on Leech and received 800 completed surveys, a rate
he called “phenomenal.”It took the association more than a year to
compile all the responses, which included items such as special
regulations, to stocking, to shoreline development.

The DNR is encouraging public input on the proposed regulations
during two public meetings. The first will take place at the
Walker/Hackensack/Akeley High School in Walker, from 7-9 p.m., on
Thursday, Dec. 16. The second occurs at the DNR’s central office at
500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., also on
Dec. 16.

Public comments on the proposal will be accepted until 4:30 p.m.
on Dec. 27 and may be submitted by phone, mail, or e-mail to
Fierstine at DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor, 07316 State Highway 371
NW, Walker, MN 56484, or (218) 547-1683, or
harlan.fierstine@dnr.state.mn.us.

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