Walleye and sauger populations continue to thrive in Lake of the Woods, based on results from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ annual September survey.
That came as no surprise, said Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the DNR’s area fisheries office in Baudette, Minn. “Remarkable typicality,” is how he described the results.
“There’s absolutely nothing that was unexpected,” Heinrich said.
As part of the survey, which targets juvenile fish but also samples walleyes up to about 25 inches, DNR crews set four, 250-foot nets at each of 16 sites on the Minnesota side of the lake from the south shore to the Northwest Angle.
The crews leave the nets overnight and pull them the next day.
The survey begins after Labor Day and continues about three weeks, Heinrich said. The DNR uses the results to determine the status of the big lake’s fish population.
This year’s survey showed walleyes in the 13- to 15-inch range—nice eaters—are the most abundant size group in the lake, Heinrich said, the result of strong hatches in 2011 and 2013.
There hasn’t been a weak walleye year-class in the lake since 2008, and there have been six average to moderate walleye hatches on top of the banner hatches in 2011 and 2013, Heinrich said.
A year-class refers to fish recruited to the population from a particular year’s hatch.
“The midsize range of the eaters is going to be really abundant in terms of what walleyes are out there right now,” he said. “Things are looking pretty rosy on the walleye front.”
This year’s survey yielded 17 to 18 walleyes per net, down from an average of 22 per net last year but higher than the long-term average of about 15 walleyes per net, Heinrich said.
“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” he said. “Last year was unusually high.”
Cooler water temperatures this year could have affected catch rates, he said.
Saugers, the “bread and butter” of Lake of the Woods’ thriving winter fishing industry, also are doing well, Heinrich said. Catch rates, at about 21 per net, were similar to last year, he said.
The survey yielded an abundance of 9- to 11-inch saugers, and the lake also holds decent numbers of 11- to 15-inch saugers, Heinrich said.
“There’s about equal representation all through that size, so there should be good numbers of keeper-size saugers,” he said. “But there’s still going to be some bait stealers out there, and I think people have been seeing that the past couple of winters, where there’s just a lot of 8-inchers out there.
“It looks like, at least for the next several years, we’re looking good for saugers, as well.”
Driven by a strong year-class in 2011 and fair hatches in 2014 and 2015, the sauger trend is a welcome turnaround from the poor production that characterized much of the ’90s until about 2005, Heinrich said.
“Our sauger population was actually quite low, but that very low sauger population produced some real boomer year-classes—2006 in particular,” he said. “That just speaks to how walleyes, saugers and yellow perch, how they can recruit. There’s a lot of surplus eggs there and when everything is right, they can really have a big population explosion.”
Perch numbers also are on the rebound, Heinrich said, and the 2015 year-class looks especially strong. Those fish are only 7 inches to 8 inches long and too small to keep, he said, but the numbers are encouraging after several years of poor perch production since invasive spiny water fleas were discovered in the lake in 2007.
“It looks like that (2015) year-class is carrying through,” Heinrich said. “We saw them last year as 1-year-olds. It’s looking good for the future for perch.”
Lake of the Woods also continues to support a small population of true jumbo perch 13 inches or larger, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of them, but we’ve got very nice-sized perch out there,” Heinrich said. “Those things are about as abundant as in the past. They’re a bonus fish. Not a lot of people can really target the perch, but they’re just a really nice bonus fish when you do catch one.”
Creel survey set
The DNR again this winter will conduct a creel survey on Lake of the Woods to monitor the big lake’s burgeoning ice fishing industry, which has grown five-fold since the DNR’s first creel survey in 1981. According to the DNR, anglers last winter logged 2.07 million hours of ice fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods, harvesting nearly 350,000 pounds of walleyes and more than 325,000 pounds of saugers.
By comparison, anglers during the most recent summer survey in 2016 logged about 638,000 hours of fishing pressure and harvested an estimated 172,388 pounds of walleyes and 57,643 pounds of saugers.
Based on last winter’s survey, 25 percent of the anglers surveyed were fishing out of wheel houses, 50 percent were fishing out of resort houses and 25 percent were in private houses, either permanent or portables, Heinrich said.
Last winter’s sauger harvest was 130 percent higher than the target harvest of 250,000 pounds, while the walleye harvest was right at the target, Heinrich said. For context, fisheries managers look at the target over a period of years rather than a single year when evaluating whether the harvest is too high, he said.
No doubt, though, the winter pressure reflects the growing popularity of ice fishing.
“Summer pressure has actually been fairly flat, but the winter is the one that just keeps going up and up and up,” Heinrich said. “I don’t know if I want to call it an issue, but it’s certainly something we’re keeping an eye on.”