Baudette, Minn. — The walleye fishing has been good on Lake of the Woods for a while now.
Has it been too good?
Walleyes are one of several topics of discussion as the Minnesota DNR leads an update of its Lake of the Woods Fisheries Management Plan, which began with monthly meetings in December.
It appears, though, that changes to the daily walleye and sauger bags on this popular fishing lake don’t appear to be coming soon.
“The lake is in good shape,” said Phil Talmadge, the DNR’s Baudette-area fisheries supervisor. “Populations look great. All things are looking good. It makes it a very easy to go through this process.”
Talmadge said he didn’t expect major management changes to occur during the update of the lake’s plan, which will be in place from 2018 to 2023 and would be updated again in five years.
Walleyes and sauger are what draw the most anglers to the lake, with a majority of that fishing pressure coming in the wintertime.
The lake also has trophy northern pike fishing, a booming lake sturgeon population, and an almost neglected smallmouth bass fishery. And that’s to speak nothing of the lake’s massive expanse that stretches deep into Ontario, where anglers also are drawn heavily to a trophy muskie fishery, and, to a lesser extent, lake trout.
Talmadge noted that historically, fisheries managers from Minnesota and Ontario worked together on the Ontario-Minnesota Boundary Waters Fisheries Atlas, which includes Lake of the Woods, the Rainy River, Rainy Lake, Namakan Lake, and Sand Point Lake. The atlas most recently was updated last June, the fourth time since 1984.
But about five years ago, Talmadge said, as the current plan was developed, the DNR decided it would begin working through a public process to update the lake’s management plan in 2018. The department attempted to bring together many interests for the input group – from local anglers, to those who visit from afar to resort owners and tourism folks.
There will be five meetings of the fisheries input group, composed of applicants solicited and selected last fall. Once a plan has been drafted, it will go out for public comment, Talmadge said.
Gary Korsgaden, a member of DNR’s walleye work group, where he has pushed for smaller walleye bags because of long-term sustainability concerns, has continued that call as a member of the Lake of the Woods input group.
On Lake of the Woods, anglers may keep a maximum of four walleyes daily, year-round, but the combined walleye-sauger bag goes from six fish in the summer to eight fish in the winter (there’s also a protected slot of 191⁄2 to 28 inches, with one fish over 28 allowed). That certainly has an effect on drawing anglers past so many great walleye waters to fish on the border, officials say. To get to Lake of the Woods, for instance, most anglers must drive by Upper Red Lake, where the limit has been four walleyes this winter.
“My concern is this: that the walleye and sauger take is up substantially during the winter,” said Korsgaden, who added that he frequently fishes the lake. “That is a concern of mine. (Harvest) has been up the last eight to 10 years. With the wheelhouses becoming so popular, you wonder what the impact is of all of that increased pressure.”
Fishing pressure has increased on the lake, according to creel data.
The Minnesota DNR’s 2016-17 winter creel survey estimated that 325,000 pounds of sauger and 350,000 pounds of walleyes were harvested, both figures well above the 10-year average level of harvest. That winter, more than 2 million angler hours were estimated, compared with a 10-year average of 1.5 million angler hours.
“We have a delicate balance we are dealing with,” Korsgaden said. “We don’t want to give the resorts heartburn (by) cutting limits, though.”
Joe Henry, executive director of the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau and a member of the input group, said he understands what Korsgaden is saying.
“Sustainability has to be the overall goal,” Henry said.
But a lower limit would make it even more challenging for resort owners.
“We already have neighboring states advertising (higher) limits, no slots,” Henry said. “Before any change is made, consideration needs to be made on how it would affect the tourism industry. The reason for the change would be sustainability, but not everybody will look at it that way.”
Currently, the lake is seeing good production and recruitment of walleyes and sauger, Talmadge said.
“You have to make sure everything stays intact,” he said. “We do need to protect the long-term sustainability of the fishery. At some point, the angler success could reach a place where dissatisfaction happens. We need to make sure we are keeping our harvests at reasonable levels for both species.”
Of the pike fishery, Talmadge said the lake has a low-population density of trophy pike.
“We have seen increases in the number of fish over 40 inches,” he said.
While the Rainy River lake sturgeon fishery is considered a great fisheries success stories, it is not considered completely recovered. Those fish do utilize Lake of the Woods for parts of the year.
“We haven’t hit all of our benchmarks yet,” Talmadge said. “It is going to take some time, with those metrics being fish reaching certain lengths and ages. That is probably inside a 15-year window.”
Talmadge said the input group would meet three more times, with a draft plan going out to the public this summer, and a goal of having the plan finalized by September.