Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Boom in ice fishing beneficial, but keep conservation in mind

By Al Lindner


I drove by Lake Mille Lacs in late February, as the end of the winter walleye season approached. During this notoriously slow time of the ice-fishing season, I spotted countless fish houses. 


The “keeper slot” on Mille Lacs is a single fish per day between 21 and 23 inches or one over 28, so harvesting a cooler of fish isn’t the object.


That many anglers on the hard water despite a tough slot? That’s astounding! In past years, the lake would have been nearly deserted.


Phil Talmage, area fisheries manager for the Minnesota DNR in Baudette, who oversees the state’s border water of Lake of the Woods, reports that fishing pressure there has more than doubled since 2001.


“Before 2000, we hadn’t recorded a million hours of anglers fishing in a winter season, but during the past few years, it’s exceeded 2 million,” he reports.


Ice fishing is the “cool” thing to do all across the Ice Belt, from New England through the Dakotas, but particularly in the Upper Midwest. It’s mirrored by sales of high-tech ice-fishing equipment – underwater cameras, new-age sonar, super-light electric augers, and deluxe portable shelters, as well as improved tackle and lures.


We’re seeing a huge boom in ice fishing across the country. While many resorts around the big lakes of Minnesota have benefited from this boom by renting fish houses for the day or weekend or housing anglers in lakeside cabins, much of this new pressure comes from wheelhouses – custom-made trailers that offer comfortable accommodations for spending a long weekend on the ice.


“It used to be that angling pressure on Lake of the Woods was a function of the numbers of beds at area resorts,” Talmage says. “But this new breed of anglers brings their accommodations with them, so growth potential isn’t limited.”


With this increase in angler numbers, coupled with new technologies and the speed that reports about “hot bites” can be spread via social media, you can visualize the potential threat to fish populations. For that reason, at Lake of the Woods starting March 1, the Minnesota DNR reduced bag limits from an aggregate of eight to six walleyes and sauger, with no more than four being walleyes.


That’s due in part to sauger. Their harvest has exceeded the target harvest of 250,000 pounds by over 150,000 pounds, most taken in winter.


As we know from studies of harvest in the oceans, there’s a limit to what people can remove without sacrificing good fishing and even adequate spawning stocks. At Mille Lacs and Lake of the Woods, conservation officers made many cases this winter for bag limit and size regulation violations, and that may be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.


Wherever we fish, we all need to work with angler groups and natural resources management agencies to make sure that increases in ice-fishing fun and industry profits don’t come at the expense of good fishing in the future. We need to support fisheries agencies in closely monitoring fish populations and working with anglers to enact protective regulations when needed.

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