Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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Butternut Lake, Forest County

Forest County’s Butternut Lake bullish on smallmouths

DNR Report

Butternut Lake sits about 12 miles east of Eagle River and just into the northwest corner of Forest County. The local DNR crew surveyed the lake in 2014 beginning just after ice-out, with early spring fyke netting for walleyes, northern pike and yellow perch, followed by an early spring electrofishing survey to estimate the adult walleye population.

Electrofishing continued to assess the smallmouth bass and summer spawning panfish populations. The 2014 survey was wrapped up with a fall electrofishing survey to assess gamefish recruitment.

Four game fish species were captured during those surveys. Smallmouth bass were found to be of high relative abundance and are the most abundant game fish in Butternut Lake. The walleye population that year was estimated at 2.7 adults per acre, which is below the long-term average for Butternut Lake, but is still one of the higher density walleye lakes in Forest County.

The northern pike population appears to be increasing, seemingly due to a large 2011 year class. Largemouth bass are present, but quite rare, in Butternut Lake. Smallmouth bass size structure was at an all-time high in Butternut Lake during that survey. That kind of size is likely due to the popularity of catch-and-release bass angling since nearly 60% of the smallmouth bass captured during this survey were more than 8 years of age. Despite the size, smallmouth bass growth rates ran a little  below the average for this region of Wisconsin, likely due to increasing abundance and competition for resources.

The size of the smallmouth bass captured during the survey was very good, with 73.8% of the fish being longer than 14 inches and 19.8% of the fish longer than 17 inches. This is the highest documented size structure for Butternut Lake for all length groups, with the exception of those 20 inches or longer since no fish of that size range were captured.

When compared to other smallmouth populations surveyed in Forest and Florence counties, the Butternut Lake fish rank among the best for mid-range sizes and right at average for 17- to 18-inchers. This is quite impressive considering the high abundance of smallmouth bass in the lake and the negative relationship that is typically seen between size structure and abundance.

Butternut Lake has been a high density, naturally reproducing walleye lake. The walleye population collapsed in the early 2000s, which resulted in the stocking of walleye fry by the DNR from 2003 through 2007. These stockings supplemented natural reproduction and by 2009 the adult walleye population increased to an all-time high at 6.6 adults per acre. Since 2009, the adult population has slowly declined to the current 2.7 adults per acre level found during this survey.

Natural reproduction in Butternut Lake is very good and will likely stop the declining trend in adult abundance. Size structure of the walleye population was quite good, with more than 90% of the fish sampled during the 2014 spring survey being 15 inches or longer; however, no large fish were observed during the survey, which suggests little trophy potential in the current population.

The northern pike population has always maintained itself at a low density, which has allowed for fast growth and good trophy potential. However, northern pike abundance appears to be increasing. Continued expansion of this population could have negative impacts on the lake’s other species, including northern pike.

Five panfish species were captured during this survey – yellow perch are the most abundant species, followed by bluegills and rock bass. These three species have growth rates at or above the average for northern Wisconsin. Pumpkinseeds and black crappie were also captured, but have what is considered low abundance.

Five non-game species were captured during the survey work: bluntnose minnow, common shiner, golden shiner, mottled sculpin, and white sucker.

Butternut Lake’s stocking history goes back to 1943 when largemouth bass fingerlings were released three out of five years between 1943 and 1947, but, overall, very little stocking has been recorded on that lake. Smallmouth fingerlings were released in nine out of 12 years between 1942 and 1953.  Walleye fry were released annually from 2003 through 2007 to boost natural reproduction. Walleye fingerlings were stocked by the state once in 1961, and a private stocking of large walleye fingerlings was approved by the DNR once – in 1988. A private stocking of adult yellow perch as approved in 1989.

Since the walleye fry stocking efforts ended in 2007, natural walleye reproduction of walleye in Butternut Lake has averaged 44.5 young-of-the-year fish per mile of shoreline during fall recruitment surveys. That’s about double the average level of natural reproduction in northern Wisconsin  at that time.

Butternut Lake

Nearest town: Eagle River

Surface area: 1,292 acres

Max. depth: 42 feet

Water clarity: 18 feet

Fish species present:

Black crappies, bluegills, rock bass, pumpkinseeds, perch, white suckers, whitefish (limited), smallmouth  bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, and walleyes.

For information:

DNR regional fisheries office (715) 365-8900, the DNR web site, or call Eagle Sports Center, (715) 479-8804.

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