State officials mull next five years for Leech Lake

Walker, Minn. – It’s been a dynamic past five years for one of
northern Minnesota’s most renowned fisheries, Leech Lake. Now it’s
time to look ahead.

A crash in the walleye population, followed by a dramatic
downturn in angling pressure, brought about a combination of
changes not seen before for the 103,00-acre lake near Walker in
Cass County.

Walleye fry stocking began in earnest, new walleye-fishing
regulations were put in place, and state, federal, and tribal
agencies took aim at fish-eating cormorants that called the islands
of Leech Lake home.

What followed was an impressive – and quick – turnaround in the
fortunes of walleyes, and Leech anglers. Now, the DNR and a
committee of 17 members are in the process of contemplating the
recent past and plotting a strategy for the lake’s management
during the next five years.

“DNR staff and citizens of the Leech Lake community have learned
a lot in the past five years,” Joe Mix, a DNR fisheries assistant
regional manager, said in an agency press release. “Our intent is
to build on that knowledge to sustain a strong fishery for years to
come.”

Here are the things that have occurred during the past half
decade, according to Doug Schultz, large lake specialist for
Leech:

€ In 2005, a special protected slot was put in place for Leech
walleyes; fish from 18 to 26 inches must be released, with one fish
over 26 inches allowed in a four-fish possession limit;

€ About 12,000 cormorants have been shot in the Leech Lake
vicinity. USDA Wildlife Service personnel do the shooting, the
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe oversees the operation, and DNR Fisheries
and Ecological Resources pay for the effort;

€ Walleye fry stocking has been intense, to the tune of 7.5
million fry in 2005 and 2007, 22.1 million in 2006 and 2008, and
22.6 million last year. Last year’s stocking was mandated by the
state Legislature, as is next year’s fry stocking.

Given the many activities occurring around Leech Lake, “There’s
no clear-cut answer” regarding what’s helped walleye numbers
increase, Schultz said. Likely it’s been a combination of
factors.

Stocking in 2011 will be up to the state DNR; Schultz said it’s
unlikely, as the department would like a couple “blank” years to
measure natural reproduction in the lake.

“The big question is if Leech is capable of self-sustaining
itself, its walleyes,” he said.

The answer is, probably. For 20 years, between 1985 and 2005,
the DNR didn’t stock walleyes in the lake. Throughout the 1980s and
’90s, angling pressure averaged more than 1 million hours per year,
according to DNR creel surveys. And anglers were harvesting –
except for a few “down” years – in the range of 150,000 walleyes.
Angling pressure bottomed out at about 430,000 angling hours in
2005, and the number of walleyes harvested fell to just 4,000.

In its update this year, however, the DNR offered this:

“Another great summer of walleye fishing on Leech Lake is in the
books.”

Anglers logged nearly 800,000 hours on the lake, and they
harvested about 100,000 pounds of walleyes (compared with about
70,000 pounds in 2004 and 7,000 pounds in 2005). The 2009 harvest
was about 87,000 pounds of walleyes.

Officials still aren’t sure the greatest cause of the crash in
the middle of the decade. Schultz said he expects productive
ice-fishing this winter on Leech, and continued angler success next
year.

“Our 2009 netting surveys indicate walleye, perch, and northern
pike populations remain above long-term averages,” he said in an
agency press release. “That’s good news for anglers and benefitting
businesses alike.”

Schultz said the current walleye slot limit will remain in place
for at least one more year, due mostly to the fact that the lake’s
“recovery plan” remains active.

“With everything that’s going on … the walleye population hasn’t
reached ‘stable’ yet in terms of growth,” Schultz said. “We don’t
want to be too quick to put a new regulation on, knowing things
could still change.”

Of course, next year following the DNR’s crunching of walleye
numbers, and the public’s chance to comment on a proposal, the
protected walleye slot could change – or it could remain the same,
Schultz said.

Evaluating the walleye slot next year will have an additional
advantage, according to the DNR’s report: “… to accommodate the
broader statewide evaluation of slot limits across all of
Minnesota’s large walleye lakes as well as to obtain an additional
year of information.”

At present, groups ranging from the Leech Lake band to Anglers
for Habitat to the Izaak Walton League are considering what to
include in a long-range, 5-year management plan for Leech. Once a
draft plan has been adopted, the public will have an opportunity to
comment on it, Schultz said.

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