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Brad Laabs column: Walleye aren't gone, just hiding from muskies

Fishing Columnist Brad Laabs

Over the last several months, I have received a number of phone calls from local anglers wanting to discuss concerns about walleye numbers and changes in catch rates on two lakes in particular in our area.

These anglers have been long-time Pelican Lake and/or Big Detroit Lake anglers, and believe that walleye catch rates are lower now than ever before.

The suspicion is the impact is due to musky populations and the significant increase in numbers of musky and the number of very large musky (48 to 56 inches) in both those systems. Similar concerns have been expressed in other parts of the state that have growing musky lakes and numbers including the Battle Lake area, the Gull Lake and Brainerd area, and even Lake Mille Lacs.

The DNR was given the task to research the impact and report findings. What they report is that walleye numbers have improved or at least have stayed stable and consistent.

This seems to be evidenced also by the FM walleye tournament that is held every year on Pelican Lake the first full weekend in June. This year, record numbers, record weights, and a record number of big walleyes were weighed in during this year's tournament.

Some guesses have been made as to the apparent drop in catch rates on waters with growing musky populations and size. Fish will change locations for survival and forage reasons.

Some of these water also have zebra mussels, and fish have been known to readjust to adapt to changing conditions due to ecosystem changes.

On lakes with musky, some anglers have noted an increase in the number of walleyes that retreat into deeper weed cover for self-protection and feeding, even during July and August when they had typically been in deeper water.

On lakes with zebra mussels, weed lines grow deeper due to the increase in light penetration and the subsequent increase in weed growth. Many anglers have found walleyes in deeper water, particularly in summer on these lakes due to the increase in light penetration and deeper weed growth.

So, it seems ... they aren't in old locations. They are deeper, or up in the weeds. They are there, it is just up to us to figure out the new locations.

Another concern has been expressed about the long-time stocking and return of the sturgeon to area lakes and the potential impact that may have.

I know the sturgeon are getting to substantial size on Big Detroit, as I had a customer catch one 36 inches this year, another area guide had a customer last year catch one that size when we were on a two boat trip. I also had another one around 40 inches up the boat that was dropped by the guide (yeah ... me) when trying to lift it in the boat!

I have heard of other anglers accidently catching some of these brutes about the same size and seeing other that may have been up to 50 inches.

I must admit, this had me concerned too. I had always heard that they eat walleye spawn. As I have tried to research this, I have not found any research to indicate that this is true. I did find out from one research project, from the Lake Winnebago system in Wisconsin, that they have been eating zebra mussels!

It is good to question, challenge, learn, and to help be a part of good management practices for our fisheries.

(Brad Laabs owns Brad Laabs Guide Service in Detroit Lakes)