Annual fall population survey shows slight decline in Lake of the Woods walleye numbers

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Saugers ‘populations, meanwhile, continue to grow, according to the results of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources‘ annual fall population survey of Lake of the Woods.

Phil Talmage, MNR Regional Fisheries Director, Baudette, Minn. Contribution / Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minnesota, this year’s survey averaged 11.5 walleye per net, up from 12.8 walleye in 2019, but within target. management, a three-year average of 14.5.

Canine abundance was 23 per fillet, according to Talmage, which is “well above” the management target of 15.7, and down slightly from 25.7 canines per fillet in 2020.

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“We had some super strong walleye year classes from 2014 to 2017,” said Talmage. “The 2015 year class is the strongest year class we have had since 2006.”

An age class represents the number of fish recruited into the population from the hatch in a given year.

Black ducks from these strong year classes now range from around 14 inches to around 16 inches, with occasionally larger fish from the remains of a large black duck hatching in 2011, Talmage said.

“We have a lot of really good sized sausages,” he said.

Positive trend

The trend bodes well for the winter fishing outlook, as rose hips are one of the mainstays of the booming Great Lake ice fishing industry. Anglers last winter logged nearly 3 million hours of ice fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods, based on the results of the MNR winter trap investigation.

A two-person limit of walleye and walleye after a productive afternoon of fishing on the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods.  The Saugers, a mainstay of the thriving ice fishing industry on Lake of the Woods, continue to do well on the Great Lake.  Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

A two-person limit of walleye and walleye after a productive afternoon of fishing on the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods. The Saugers, a mainstay of the thriving ice fishing industry on Lake of the Woods, continue to do well on the Great Lake. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Rose hips tend to bite all day in winter, and their abundance will help offset the decline in walleye, which are typically more active during low light spells under the ice, said Talmage.

“Winter fishing, overall I think it’s going to be pretty good,” he said. “It’s going to be having those walleye opportunities and then filling the gaps in between with the great abundance of walleye that we have out there right now.”

The MNR conducts the annual fall population survey for 17 days beginning the Tuesday after Labor Day, setting up 64 nets at sites on the Minnesota side of the lake, from the south shore to the northwest corner and the leaving overnight.

Fishing teams then count the number of fish of each species, measure the fish and determine their sex and maturity. The survey is “bread and butter” when it comes to collecting data on Lake of the Woods fish populations, Talmage says.

“This is definitely where we get the most information from,” he said.

New management plan

As part of a new Lake of the Woods management plan adopted in 2018, the MNR is using a three-year moving average to monitor walleye abundance in the event that there is a slack year when survey results may occur. does not reflect what is actually happening on the big lake, Talmage mentioned.

“The two- and four-year-old fish generally make up a very large portion of our gillnet catch” during the fall survey, he said. “With these two weak year classes (in 2017 and 2019), that’s really what pushed our catch rates to their current level, so it’s just a few weak year classes moving in the system, and that’s really what drives it all.

Young walleye of the year are seen after being caught in nets in September 2018 during the Minnesota Department of <a class=Natural Resources annual fall population survey of Lake of the Woods. Contribution / Minnesota DNR” width=”1140″ height=”-1″/>

Young walleye of the year are seen after being caught in nets in September 2018 during the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources annual fall population survey of Lake of the Woods. Contribution / Minnesota DNR

Anglers can also expect to see the trend reflected in the walleye they catch, Talmage said. On the upside, walleyes had a decent hatch in 2018, and these fish are now around 14 inches long, he says; the 2020 and 2021 year classes also appear to be quite strong and will be bait thieves this winter.

“There are places throughout the length range where we have a gap due to these weak year classes, but once you hit those 17, 18, 19 inches (walleye size), we’re back. at or above average abundance of fish of this size, ”said Talmage.

An occasional weak year-class is to be expected, Talmage said, especially after several consecutive strong outbreaks before 2017.

Three to five years ago there was no weak year class of walleye in the 13-19 inch range, he said, a trend that may have inflated fishermen’s expectations. at the line.

“Having this year after year is unrealistic,” Talmage said. “There will be times when there will be gaps. I think people kind of have this idea of ​​what it should look like every year.

“Frankly, it’s impossible to achieve that every year.

Given the abundance of walleye from hatching in 2018, 2020 and 2021, Talmage says he expects fall surveys to show higher numbers of walleye in the next few years.

“We’re going to see this trend start to change,” he said. “We’re going to start to see those numbers go up again.”

A Minnesota MNR employee cuts off the head of a Lake of the Woods walleye to remove the otolith, an ear bone used by fishing crews to determine the age of a fish.  Contribution / Minnesota DNR

A Minnesota MNR employee cuts off the head of a Lake of the Woods walleye to remove the otolith, an ear bone used by fishing crews to determine the age of a fish. Contribution / Minnesota DNR

Concerns of fishermen

Talmage says he continues to hear occasionally from anglers who think the walleye population on Lake of the Woods is out of balance and complain about catching too many walleye in the protected slot from 19½ to 28 inches or too much. small fish and not enough fish eaters.

“I hear it and, I mean, I understand,” he said. “You go fishing and you want to catch your fish. What I always tell people when I get this call is that there is a lot of variability in the wild populations.

This is reflected in the survey results over the years. In 2018, for example, Walleye catches on Lake of the Woods averaged 15.1 per net in the MNR fall survey, and the 2002 to 2018 average was 16.9 per net, according to survey results.

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee removes fish from a gillnet in this undated photo from the agency's annual fall survey of Lake of the Woods.  Contribution / Minnesota DNR

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee removes fish from a gillnet in this undated photo from the agency’s annual fall survey of Lake of the Woods. Contribution / Minnesota DNR

At the same time, the 2008 survey produced only about ten walleye per fillet.

“It’s nowhere we’ve never been before,” Talmage said. “We were lower when I came here in 2008, by the way. Based on this three-year moving average, we are still on our management target.

Walleye fishing this past summer and fall has been very good, says Talmage, and MNR assessments on Lake of the Woods show good reproduction, good spawning biomass of larger fish, and good recruitment of new ones. gilded in the population.

In comparison, a stressed fishery tends to cycle through population growth and decline, producing a banner hatch one year, and producing little or no recruitment for the next decade.

“In fact, (summer 2021) was one of the first years that I didn’t receive any reports of bad fishing,” Talmage said. “Right now I would say our fishery is very healthy. “

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