Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Red Lake interests want longer ice-fishing season

Kelliher, Minn. – It’s not an easy thing when three-fourths of
your annual business is squeezed into less than a two-month window
during the wintertime.

But that’s not the only reason business owners and others with
interest in Red Lake walleye fishing would like to see the
ice-fishing season extended, similar to the longer season on Lake
of the Woods, a border water located just north of Red. They also
say that the walleye quota set by the DNR and Red Lake Band isn’t
being met by state-licensed anglers. A longer season would extend
angler opportunity, help the local economy, and not hurt the
walleye resource.

“Usually ice fishing isn’t into full swing until after the
holidays, after Christmas,” said Mike Washenberger, of Dr. Tackle
Sports near Upper Red. “There’s even concerns sometimes about the
ice after the first of the year.

“Then Feb. 24 rolls around, and the walleye season is over
with.”

Predictably, the Minnesota DNR is taking a wary approach to the
suggestions made by a Red Lake group known as the Voice of Upper
Red Lake. The lake has been open to walleye fishing for two years
after a collapse caused by tribal and state overfishing that shut
down the walleye fishery for more than a decade. Following stocking
that revitalized the walleye fishery, both parties have strict
ceilings in place for walleye harvest.

“They’re being very cautious,” Washenberger said.

For the state, that’s an annual harvest goal of 168,000 pounds,
and a harvest cap of 240,000 pounds of walleyes. During the first
two years of a renewed walleye season, most of the harvest has
taken place over the ice; during the winter, anglers are less
vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature.

Washenberger said he and others whose livelihoods depend on
Upper Red would like to see the walleye season extended until at
least mid-March, when fish houses must be removed from lakes in the
northern portion of Minnesota. He said safe ice at that time of
year wouldn’t be a concern; last year he trekked onto the ice on
April 13. And, the walleye season remains open on Lake of the Woods
until mid-April.

Washenberger said he’s fine-tuning a proposal for a season
extension. “We’d like to have DNR backing and get the Legislature
on board,” he said.

Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji, attended
a meeting held by the Red Lake group in Kelliher on Feb. 13. He
said the idea first reared its head last fall.

“It’s a unique concern on Red Lake,” he said. “A lot of the
business is winter-related, and it ends with the walleye season,
since crappie fishing has kind of petered out.”

The DNR, he said, uses its data to estimate how many fish can be
harvested without damaging the ability of walleyes to sustain a
healthy population. It does so by conducting surveys (Red Lake
tribal information is considered, as well) and setting limits based
on walleye “biomass.”

When the walleye season opened last year in May, the daily bag
for walleyes was two (with a protected 17- to 26-inch slot). But
midway through the summer, when the pounds of walleyes caught
remained low, the bag was increased to four. It returned to two
this winter.

When the fishing opener occurs this May, a three-walleye limit
will be in place, likely for the season’s entirety.

But a season extension, at a time of year – the late ice-fishing
season – when fishing can be especially productive, could cause the
department to rethink its strategy, Barnard concedes.

“We’ve got concerns about that with our harvest management,” he
said.

As witnessed by a number of proposals already raised during the
current legislative session, it’s possible the Legislature could
take up the matter, with or without DNR support.

If that were the case “We’d have to react to the changes Š”
Barnard said. “Just like we would with an early opener (a current
proposal to move up the fishing opener by one week.

“We know that (extending the Red Lake ice-fishing season) would
increase harvest, and not just because of the added two weeks. They
(walleyes and northern pike) become more vulnerable during late
ice. And the catch rates would probably increase. It’s more than
just a couple more weeks of harvest.”

The intent of increasing the bag to three walleyes beginning
this spring (and presumably running the entire season – open water
and ice) is to bring angler harvest closer to goal, Barnard
said.

In the past, the DNR has tried to split harvest evenly between
open water and ice – 84,000 pounds each. As of mid-February, the
harvest was at about 42,000 pounds; the harvest season officially
began Dec. 1. Last year, ice anglers harvested about 70,000 pounds
of walleyes; open-water anglers harvested only about 30,000
pounds.

Washenberger pointed out that Red Lake Band harvest on Upper and
Lower Red lakes has been a fraction of what tribes currently are
allowed to harvest.

Barnard said he expected state angler harvest to be greater this
winter, partly due to the fact that a new rule allows anglers to
clean and eat walleyes while on the ice, thus extending their
ability to continue to catch fish, if they so choose. He said DNR
estimates are that 27 percent of the harvest is being consumed this
winter.

Reacting to heavier harvest during the ice-season, the DNR, with
input from the Red Lake group, increased the percentage of harvest
to be taken during the ice-fishing season this year – to 60
percent, according to Washenberger.

Early opener

Washenberger said the Red Lake group is unanimous in its
opposition to a legislatively proposed earlier fishing opener – a
week ahead of the traditional season opener.

“We’re opposed to that because of spawning walleyes in the north
country,” he said.

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