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Survey shows high walleye take on Lake of the Woods

Kit Beckel, a guide for Sportsman's Lodge near Baudette, Minn., holds a 25-inch walleye caught on a jig and minnow in late September near Stony Point. Creel surveys from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirm what many anglers already knew: Fishing on Lake of the Woods during the past year has been very good. Photo by - Brad Dokken/Forum Communications, Co.

Anglers on Lake of the Woods have kept more walleyes in the past year than harvest quotas call for, but fisheries managers say it's not a concern at this point.

Results from the first creel surveys conducted on the lake in five years don't necessarily make a trend, officials say.

"This is definitely something we pay attention to, and we're going to continue to monitor," said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn.

According to Talmage, anglers kept more than 770,000 pounds of walleyes during separate creel surveys conducted from late December through early March and from the mid-May fishing opener through the end of September.

The annual "target harvest" on Lake of the Woods, which represents the number of walleyes the DNR believes can be kept without impacting the population, is 450,000 pounds annually. That's based on a six-year average, though, Talmage said, and favorable weather conditions during both survey periods led to an increase both in fishing pressure and the number of walleyes anglers kept.

By the numbers

Anglers last winter kept an estimated 353,203 pounds of walleyes, Talmage said, along with 417,401 pounds this past summer. Summer fishing pressure also exceeded long-term trends, Talmage said, not only because of the weather but because fishing was so good.

The summer harvest wasn't a record, but it was higher than recent years, he said.

Anglers this past summer logged an estimated 865,678 hours of fishing pressure on the Minnesota portion of the big lake. Coupled with 1.6 million hours of fishing pressure on the ice last winter, the harvest numbers weren't surprising, Talmage said. Last winter's fishing pressure fell short of the record 1.9 million hours in 2003-2004, but the survey didn't get rolling until late December, Talmage said.

The survey was done by mid-March when winter came to a sudden halt.

"It was definitely an extraordinary year for fishing," Talmage said. "And the way the weather cooperated, people were able to be out there and spend more hours on the lake than they have in the past."

Before last winter, the DNR hadn't conducted a creel survey on Lake of the Woods since 2007 because of tight budgets. This past year, though, Talmage said the DNR was able to conduct not only winter and summer creel surveys, but spring and fall surveys, as well.

"This was the first time in quite a few years where we've had them all paired together in one year," he said. "So, it was a really nice picture of how anglers did out there in the past year."

Healthy population

No doubt these are good times for anglers on Lake of the Woods. According to Talmage, population surveys show walleye and sauger abundance exceeds long-term averages. Saugers, which are a staple of the big lake's booming winter fishery, are riding the momentum of strong hatches from 2005 through 2007.

"We've got a real healthy walleye and sauger population," Talmage said. "A lot of years of just very consistent walleye production, and it looks like 2011 is going to be another big year-class, so they're going to be bait stealers this winter."

Talmage said another winter creel survey is scheduled to begin this month, with a summer creel survey planned for 2013. Two consecutive years of data will give managers a better handle on the extent of fishing pressure and harvest happening on the big lake, he said.

A winter with a lot of snow and difficult access and a summer with extended periods of wind and rain could see the harvest and pressure decline just as drastically, Talmage said.

"We'll continue to track all the important parts of the fishery and look forward to having another year's worth of data next year to see where we're at," he said.

The numbers tend to even out over the long term, Talmage said.

"I'm venturing to guess we'll see more of a normal year, but who knows?" Talmage said. "I'd really like to be able to lean back and say we had a normal year."

As part of the winter creel survey, DNR clerks cover the lake by snowmobile, counting fish houses, talking to anglers on the ice and gathering information about catch rates and harvest. During the summer survey, clerks set up at designated access points and interview anglers as they're leaving the water.