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

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Minnesota Lake Profiles – the Great Eight

(Minnesota DNR)
Lake of the Woods

Area: 764,238 acres


Littoral area: 79,253 acres


Shore length: 3,339 miles


Maximum depth: 210 feet


Average water clarity: 3.5 feet


Current regulations: From May 9 opener until April 14, 2021, walleye/sauger bag is six fish, no more than four can be walleyes; walleyes 19.5 to 28 inches must be immediately released with only one walleye over 28 inches allowed.


Walleye status: DNR large lake specialist Brett Nelson said the walleye catch rate was 18.3 per gill net, which is above the average between 2002 and 2018 – 16.8 per net. Of importance to anglers are the walleyes between 14 and 19 inches, and Nelson said the last four or five years have been in the 75th percentile, or above average. The largest walleye that turned up was 293⁄4 inches. The 2011 and 2013 year-classes are both sizeable and will contribute heavily to the fish-over-20-inches category. On the sauger front, Nelson said the 2014 to 2017 year-classes are above average. 

Leech Lake

Area: 110,309 acres


Littoral area: 57,994 acres


Shore length: 232 miles


Maximum depth: 150 feet


Average water clarity: 9 feet


Current regulations: The possession limit is four walleyes, with only one fish over 20 inches. 


Walleye status: Walleye numbers were within management goals in the 2019 September survey but poor ice conditions through the majority of the 2019-20 winter fishing season should result in a lot of walleyes available for harvest for the opener. Walleyes in the fall sample ranged in length from 6 to 28 inches, and included a number of younger year-classes that should be large enough to harvest in the next year or two. Last year’s new regulation of four fish total with only 1 over 20 inches allowed in possession is intended to reduce spawner stock biomass and provide additional harvest opportunity to anglers. This regulation will be evaluated annually and adjustments will be made based on management plan objectives and action items.

Lake Minnetonka

Area: 14,205 acres


Littoral area: 5,849 acres


Shore length: 133 miles


Maximum depth: 113 feet


Average water clarity: 7.7 feet


Current regulations: The statewide regulation applies here, with six fish and only one fish longer than 20 inches.


Walleye status: The lake was sampled last June for the first time since 2016. DNR West Metro fisheries supervisor Daryl Ellison noted that the lake-wide walleye catch rate was 1.7 walleyes per net, well shy of the 3.25 per net observed in 2016, and well  shy of the lake median of 3.59 walleyes per net. “Even though the rate was down from the lake median, catch rates vary from year to year, while still supporting good walleye fishing,” he said.


Historically, size structure indices have shown Lake Minnetonka’s walleye population consists of larger individuals; this was again observed in June. Walleyes averaged 20.3 inches, up from 18.3 inches in 2016. Walleyes in this latest survey ranged from 14.5 to 26.5 inches. 

Lake Mille Lacs

Area: 128,226


Littoral area: 33,130 acres


Shore length: 91 miles


Maximum depth: 42 feet


Average water clarity: 9 feet


Current regulations: This year’s open-water regulation for Mille Lacs is catch-and-release only, with the exception of July, when walleye fishing is closed. During July, anglers may not use live bait, except for sucker minnows greater than 8 inches in length for pike or muskies. The walleye season is from Saturday, May 9 to Monday, Nov. 30. New this year, all smallmouth and largemouth bass greater than 17 inches must be immediately released during the harvest season, which begins Saturday, May 23. There is a three-fish limit of three largemouths and smallmouth bass. Also new, all northern pike greater than 30 inches must be released. There is a limit of three northern pike from Saturday, May 9, through Wednesday, March 31, 2021.


Walleye status: The 2013 year-class continues to make up the largest age group of fish observed in fall sampling (about 35%). While the 2014 year-class is now below the 25th percentile, the 2015 to 2018 year-classes are now well above that mark, with the 2017s continuing to show up in strong numbers at above the 60th percentile, suggesting likely high future recruitment into the spawning stock. Fall condition factors for walleyes across all class sizes were the lowest to second-lowest ever observed. High angler catch rates this winter and last summer were likely due to hungry fish. But age 0 perch and tullibees, the preferred prey of walleyes, provided a conflicting view of forage levels as they were sampled at above-median levels in the forage gill net.

Upper Red Lake

Area: 119,294 acres


Littoral area: 47,681 acres


Shore length: 59 miles


Maximum depth: 15 feet


Average water clarity: N/A


Current regulations: The four-walleye bag remains during this year’s open-water season, but as of Dec. 2019, of only one walleye longer than 17 inches is allowed.  A new northern pike regulation squeezes the protected size range from 26 to 44 inches down to 30 to 40 inches.


Walleye status: Andy Thompson, the DNR’s acting Bemidji-area fisheries supervisor, said the attempt to take advantage of the aging 2011 year-class – with the open-water, season-wide harvest allowing one over 20 inches instead of 17 inches – went as planned. “We wanted to take a bite out of that spawning stock biomass,” he said, of a year-class that is now phasing out of the system to old age. “We are back down to the normal optimal level of spawning stock,” he said of the shift back to only one over 17 inches allowed. The year-classes since 2011 have been moderate to weak, but the 2017 is turning out to be decent, he said. “They are going to be the ones that round out bag limits at about 12 to 13 inches now, but by midsummer should be closer to 14 inches.

Rainy Lake

Area: 210,200.21


Littoral area: 18,949 acres


Shore length: 2,176 miles


Maximum depth: 161 feet


Average water clarity: 9 feet


Current regulations: Walleye and sauger possession limit is eight fish, with no more than four walleyes. All walleyes from 18 to 26 inches must be released. One walleye over 26 inches is allowed in possession.


Walleye status: Walleye numbers from Rainy continue to be strong, according to data from the latest survey last fall.


The 2019 walleye gill net catch rate was 5.7 fish per net, which is at the historic median for Rainy. The catch rates over the past 13 years have ranged between 5.7 and 8.0 walleyes per net. The 2016 year-class made up the largest portion of this latest survey at 26.1%. The 2011 year-class is the most recent strong year-class to become attactive to anglers, and it made up 7.2% of the catch. Walleye production has been characterized by more average year-classes and fewer strong and weak year-classes in recent years. That has resulted in a wide distribution of lengths in the population. Overall, gill-netted walleyes ranged in length from 4.6 to 26.1 inches long and had an average length of 13.6 inches. 

Lake Vermilion

Area: 39,272 acres


Littoral area: 15,006 acres


Shore length: 341 miles


Maximum depth: 76 feet


Average water clarity: 8 feet


Current regulations: A 20- to 26-inch protected slot for walleyes remains in effect, with one fish over 26 inches allowed in a the four-fish possession limit. New last year, Vermilion pike are regulated under the northeast zone regulation so all pike from 30 to 40 inches must be released, with only one pike allowed over 40 inches in the two-fish bag limit (a winter regulation allows spearers one fish over 26 inches).


Walleye status: Matt Hennen, the DNR’s large lake specialist for Vermilion, said walleye abundance was down from previous years. But he expected anglers to note an increase in the numbers of the preferred eating size (13 to 18 inches) especially as the strong 2016 year-class grows into the lower end of that range. Electrofishing last fall also turned up noticeable catches of fish under 10 inches, which anglers should catch in high numbers this year, and which is promising for the future. 


And, of course, there remain a lot of fish over 20 inches in the lake, for those interested in a trophy.

Lake Winnibigoshish

Area: 56,471 acres


Littoral area: 18,904 acres


Shore length: 69 miles


Maximum depth: 69 feet


Average water clarity: 10 feet


Current regulations: All walleyes from 18 to 23 inches must be immediately released; one over 23 inches allowed in possession.


Walleye status: Walleye are a primary management species on Winnibigoshish because they are well suited for the lake, are actively managed through stocking and special regulation, and are popular with anglers. 


The 2019 gill net catch was typical for lakes with similar habitats, although somewhat below average for Winnibigoshish. The presence of fish from the 2018 and 2019 year-classes was confirmed in the 2019 gill net survey.  Improved recruitment in 2018 and 2019 resulted in higher catches of fish under 18 inches. These fish are expected to grow to a keeper size in 2020 and 2021.  


— DNR Reports, compiled by Javier Serna

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