Leech Lake Task Force demands huge stocking

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

Walker, Minn. — Brad Walhof, the mayor of Walker, says he’s
finally able to admit Leech Lake has a problem, and that the lake
is “sick, very ill.”

“I’ve been a very positive person about Leech Lake…” he said.
“(But) it’s like a person that is really ill and has a disease. We
are finally over the denial.”

The cure, according to Walhof and more than 50 other people at a
public meeting last Wednesday with DNR officials in Walker, is
intense walleye stocking. And not intense like what’s been stocked
so far under a DNR plan (7.5 million fry last year), or planned for
this year (12.5 million fry).

Intense like 46 million fry.

That’s the crux of a Leech Lake recovery plan supported by the
Leech Lake Fishing Task Force, an advisory group to the city of
Walker. The plan, among other actions, also calls for further
reduction of the lake’s cormorant population, widely blamed for a
lack of young walleyes.

The accelerated plan comes on the heels of a year when the total
walleye catch was less than 10,000 pounds (not unexpected, given
harvest regulations, but down from 189,000 pounds in 1999), and
angling pressure slipped to 430,000 hours, a nearly two-thirds drop
from 1999, when anglers spent 1.2 million hours on the lake.

The DNR, meanwhile, has its own plan for improving walleye
fishing on Leech. The main parts of the five-year plan are
stocking, experimental fishing regulations, and cormorant
reduction. Last year was the first the plan was in place: 7.5
million fry were stocked, 2,993 cormorants were killed, 15,000 to
20,000 pounds of spawning-aged walleyes were saved via the
regulations, and preliminary results indicate 2005 could be Leech’s
first good year-class of walleyes since the late 1990s. In addition
to quantity, biologists also were pleased to see good growth rates
– 6.5 inches by September – among the young fish.

“It looks like we got a good to great year-class, not a boomer,”
said Harlan Fierstine, DNR area fisheries manager in Walker.

Still, the first-year success is enough for stocking supporters
to call for a rapid ramping up of efforts. In addition to support
of the Leech Lake task force and the majority of those at last
week’s meeting, Walhof also presented DNR officials with letters
from a variety of other agencies and groups supporting the
plan.

DNR officials said they would look at the proposed plan and
consider the support for additional stocking.

“It’s not a reluctance to look at stocking,” said Mike Carroll,
DNR Northwest Region director. Rather, he said, the agency, through
its recovery plan, wants to study what’s going on with the lake’s
wild fish.

Carroll said he would discuss the issues “face to face” with DNR
commissioners, and get back to the group as soon as possible.

“I get the message of a timely response,” Carroll said.

In the past few years, the Leech Lake issue has been hard on the
local economy. More than 30 businesses have closed, and at least 22
resorts have shut their doors, Walhof said.

“If we don’t stock this lake, it’s the end of the community,”
one resort owner said.

Guides also say they’re having a tough time.

Long-time Leech guide Ted Gwinn, who one year was booked solid
by mid-February, hasn’t had any calls yet for walleye trips this
summer. Jeff Woodruff, another guide, has one walleye trip lined
up.

Both Gwinn and Woodruff say the lake’s good muskie fishing is
keeping their businesses afloat.

DNR Fisheries Section Chief Ron Payer – who noted it wasn’t long
ago officials were worried about exceeding what they believed was a
sustainable harvest on Leech – said the DNR’s plan could be
refined.

Payer also said there are a lot of problems on Leech, and that
the DNR is working to find out what the core problems are.

There appears to be consensus that cormorants are playing some
role. The DNR’s goal, under its recovery plan, is to maintain 500
nesting pairs on the lake. The task force’s plan calls for 110
cormorant pairs.

Dick Sternberg, who authored the task force’s accelerated
recovery plan, also wondered about the effects on walleyes and
yellow perch of other species in the lake, like rusty crayfish.

Meantime, he said, the DNR should put enough walleye fry in the
lake to take uncertainty out of the equation.

“We’re not going to find the answers to this stuff overnight,”
Sternberg said. “We have to err on the generous side. If we are
going to make a mistake, let’s make a mistake on the generous
side.”

Categories: Hunting News

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