Sauger fishing this winter on Lake of the Woods was on par with long-term averages, but walleye fishing lagged, preliminary results from a winter creel survey show.
According to Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., anglers kept about 270,000 pounds of saugers this winter, which is slightly higher than the 10-year average of 230,000 pounds.
By comparison, anglers this winter kept an estimated 79,000 pounds of walleyes, Heinrich said, down from the 10-year average of 223,000 pounds.
Anglers caught an average of .26 saugers per hour, down only slightly from the long-term average of .27 saugers per hour, Heinrich said. The catch rate for walleyes was .06 walleyes per hour, Heinrich said, down from the 10-year average of .16.
Anglers also spent more time on the ice this winter, despite an abbreviated season that didn’t begin until late December and wrapped up in early March. Anglers logged 1.4 million hours of ice time on Lake of the Woods, Heinrich said, up slightly from the 10-year average of 1.3 million hours.
“You have to put that in context,” Heinrich said. “The creel this year was something on the order of three to four weeks shorter than usual, so we packed a lot of effort into that relatively short period of time.”
Heinrich said the bump in pressure likely resulted from the late freeze-up across the state, driving many anglers who might have fished elsewhere north to Lake of the Woods.
The creel survey was scheduled to last through March 15 but wrapped up March 11 because of rapidly deteriorating ice conditions and a resulting drop in fishing pressure.
As part of the survey, known as a “roving creel,” the DNR divides the south shore of Lake of the Woods into six survey blocks, and a creel clerk counts fish houses and interviews anglers on the ice to determine everything from the number and species of fish caught to angler demographics.
Each of the survey blocks corresponds with popular access points on the lake, running from Pine Island at the southeast corner of Minnesota waters to the Springsteel area north of Warroad, Minn., on the west side of Minnesota waters. The Northwest Angle wasn’t part of the survey.
Typically, the clerk covered no more two than survey blocks per day, Heinrich said, conducting about 30 interviews in the process.
Anglers also were asked to rate the fishing as good, moderate or poor. In many cases, reality fell short of expectations, Heinrich said.
“I don’t know what was driving this, but a lot of the chatter was that the fishing was really slow on Lake of the Woods,” Heinrich said. “The numbers show it was slower than average, but it’s not like it was dead. And I think a lot of what’s going on is people have such high expectations when they’re coming up here, for whatever reason, and then when they have kind of an average day, it’s disappointing to them.”
Heinrich, who also spent several days on the ice conducting the survey, said it was rare to interview anglers who had caught no fish. A majority of houses reported catching at least a few fish, he said, and then a couple of groups would have full buckets.
“To me, that’s the definition of spotty, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason,” Heinrich said. “Two parties next to each other—one would have low catch rates and the next was just pounding them.”
Heinrich said he doesn’t have a good theory for the winter’s lower walleye catch rates but said prey abundance likely played a role. Fall population surveys showed higher walleye abundance offshore than at sampling sites closer to shore, Heinrich said, which appeared to coincide with a large hatch of tullibees, a key forage species.
Typically, he said, the walleyes are distributed more evenly between offshore and near-shore sites. Despite the disparity, walleye numbers in the fall survey were on par with the 10-year average.
“It certainly wasn’t an abundance issue,” Heinrich said. “It’s not like our walleyes are going away.”
The winter creel survey was the first on Lake of the Woods since 2012-13, and a spring creel survey on the Rainy River began March 12. Also in the works is a summer creel survey on Lake of the Woods and a fall survey on the Rainy River.
The DNR plans to conduct winter creel surveys annually and summer creels two out of every four years.
The surveys are essential to monitoring harvests to ensure they stay within safe target levels on the big lake, which are 541,000 pounds annually for walleyes and 250,000 pounds for saugers.
“These creel surveys are just really important for us,” Heinrich said.”We want to manage close to the target harvest, and we don’t want to go over by a huge amount.”
Catches down on Red
Fishing also was slower this winter on Minnesota’s 48,000-acre portion of Upper Red Lake, preliminary creel survey results show.
According to Henry Drewes, northwest regional fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, anglers logged about 1.7 million hours of ice time this winter on Upper Red and kept an estimated 113,000 pounds of walleyes.
That’s down from a harvest of 140,000 pounds the previous winter, when fishing pressure hit a record 1.75 million angler-hours, Drewes said.
Open-water regulations on Upper Red haven’t been finalized, but Drewes said the limit likely will be the same as it was this winter: three walleyes with one fish longer than 17 inches allowed.
“We’re looking at rolling with the same regulation into the summer,” Drewes said. “The acceptability of that regulation seemed pretty good, and compliance was pretty good, so we’ll stay the course on that throughout the spring and see what happens.”