Green Bay, Wis. — The walleye population in Green Bay is strong and still growing 40 years after its resurgence. DNR fish biologist Steve Hogler said improved water quality is the key to the thriving walleye fishery.
“Like many other fish populations in Green Bay, the walleye population suffered from the poor water quality in the bay from years of industrial discharges and agriculture discharges,” Hogler said. “Back in the mid-1970s, following the passage of the Clean Water Act, DNR fisheries biologists began stocking Green Bay and the Fox River with walleyes.”
There was a remnant walleye population in the bay during the 1970s, but fishing was poor and it was rare to catch a trophy walleye. Large-scale stocking of walleye fry and fingerlings through 1984 got the population jump-started.
After that, natural reproduction was adequate to propagate the species.
“The results were pretty remarkable,” Hogler said. “Right now, Wisconsin only stocks 100,000 walleyes a year around Sturgeon Bay. Otherwise, the Fox River and the rest of the bay walleyes are self-reproducing.”
Walleyes in the bay spawn in the rivers and in the bay itself. Hogler said in Sturgeon Bay, walleyes spawn on rocky-bottomed areas. There also are significant spawning runs up the Fox, Peshtigo, Oconto, and Menomonee rivers.
Estimating the walleye population in Green Bay is a daunting task.
“The population trend seems to be increasing,” Hogler said. “It’s really difficult to get a handle on how many are out there because the bay is such a big place and it is open-ended. We can mark a bunch of fish, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stay in Wisconsin. They can move into Michigan’s waters. They can move up to the northern part of the bay.”
Hogler said the size of fish in the population has been variable. Some strong year-classes recently have moved through the system and the replacements for those fish are a little smaller. However, there are still many trophy walleyes being caught in the bay.
Big waters often produce record fish, but Hogler doesn’t think a new state record walleye is swimming in the bay.
“There is always that possibility,” he said. “They have been saying the record walleye will come out of the Fox or the bay since the late 1980s. The largest one I’ve ever seen is around 14 or 15 pounds. The walleyes here are fished pretty heavy and they grow very fast. To achieve a really large maximum size – that generally happens in a population that grows slowly.”
The state record walleye was caught from High Lake in Vilas County in 1933. It weighed 18 pounds.
Most anglers practice catch and release for big walleyes, but Hogler said there’s a significant harvest of walleyes each year and it has not hurt the population.
“Last year around the bay, close to 175,000 walleyes were caught,” he said. “About 70,000 walleyes were harvested. That harvest has been increasing since about 2005. That’s a tremendous fishery.”
The waters of the bay do not have any special harvest restrictions to protect walleyes. Hogler said the Fox River has a one-fish-over-28-inch limit from March through opening day of the inland season. The other tributaries also have similar restrictions during the spawning run.
“That allows people to fish and if they catch a monster, they can take it home,” Hogler said.
Invasive species are a concern for biologists.
“There are always potential risks with invasive species that may affect one section of the life span,” Hogler said. “Round gobies, being an egg-eater, could potentially cause problems with the walleye reproduction. Right now, we don’t have any information that it is (hurting reproduction).”
Anglers targeting walleyes in the bay generally troll with crawler harnesses or crankbaits. In the rivers, most people jig or cast crankbaits.
The bay has commercial fishing operations, and anglers have to be aware of those nets. Yellow perch or whitefish are the targets of commercial fishermen. Hogler said a study from the late 1980s showed there was little impact to the walleye population from the commercial nets.