Published June 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Relaxed walleye slot limit draws the crowds on Upper Red Lake

The DNR on June 15 tweaked the protected slot on Upper Red, allowing anglers to keep walleyes less than 20 inches, with one longer than 26 inches, in their four-fish bag. Before the change, anglers could only keep walleyes measuring less than 17 inches or one longer than 26 inches in their four-fish bag.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

The boats ramps on Upper Red Lake have been packed since the Department of Natural Resources loosened the walleye slot limit in mid-June, but fisheries biologists say they’re not concerned about the pressure’s impact on fish populations.

The DNR on June 15 tweaked the protected slot on Upper Red, allowing anglers to keep walleyes less than 20 inches, with one longer than 26 inches, in their four-fish bag. Before the change, anglers could only keep walleyes measuring less than 17 inches or one longer than 26 inches in their four-fish bag.

As a result, anglers were forced to throw back the 17- to 20-inch walleyes many consider to be ideal “keepers.”

The relaxed slot limit, in effect through the open-water season, results from a citizen advisory group that requested the change in an effort to boost summer traffic on the big lake.

The DNR agreed to adjust the regulation in mid-June if the winter walleye harvest didn’t exceed 112,000 pounds. The winter take fell short of that number, and so the change went into effect June 15.

According to Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, the change sparked an increase in traffic that was evident the day the regulation took effect.

“The accesses are full,” Barnard said. “People have really responded to this slot. I would say the Monday it opened to 20 inches was probably as busy as opening weekend.”

Barnard said the DNR waited until June 15 to loosen the slot because the bulk of Upper Red’s walleye harvest occurs in the winter and during the first month of the open-water season. Fishing traditionally gets tougher in the middle of summer as walleyes move farther off shore, where they’re less accessible to anglers.

The DNR manages Minnesota’s 48,000-acre share of Upper Red Lake with an annual “target” of 168,000 pounds, and anglers have been keeping about 100,000 pounds annually since walleye fishing resumed in 2006.

Lake can support

The jump in traffic and harvest has triggered concern from some residents in the Waskish, Minn., area, Barnard said. But even with the change, he said, the lake’s walleye population is strong enough to handle the increased pressure.

Red Lake now supports at least five strong age groups of walleyes, Barnard said.

In the long run, keeping a few more walleyes will probably bring the population more in line with forage abundance, Barnard said. That should improve growth rates. Despite Red Lake’s tremendous walleye population, fish measuring 25 inches and larger remain scarce.

“That’s one of the things that’s been a bit concerning for us and one reason we think it’s OK to push the harvest a bit,” he said.

“I’m really thinking this is the perfect regulation for right now,” Barnard said. “If forage is limited, the fish are going to bite, and we’re going to harvest a lot of fish. If it’s not limited, fishing will go into slowdown and we won’t harvest as many fish. It self regulates in that aspect. That’s a good thing.”

By the numbers

According to Barnard, creel survey estimates show anglers on Upper Red kept about 36,000 pounds of walleyes in May with the 17- to 26-inch protected slot. That dropped to about 7,500 pounds the first half of June, when fishing pressure also fell significantly.

Barnard said the DNR will have a better handle on the walleye harvest since the rule change after it crunches the creel survey numbers for June.

Even if this year’s harvest exceeds the annual target of 168,000 pounds, he said the state still has a fair bit of leeway.

“That’s not a drop dead, closed fishery number either,” Barnard said. “We can exceed that, and with three-year averaging, we’re in great shape, too, because we’ve been under the past couple of years.”

Beginning Dec. 1, the limit on Upper Red will revert to the 17- to 26-inch protected slot. What remains to be seen, Barnard said, is whether the winter bag is four walleyes or three. If the summer take is too high, he said, anglers could face a three-walleye limit next winter.

The hope, he said, is to offer the relaxed 20- to 26-inch protected slot after June 15 every year during the open water season.

“It’s a little bit hard to predict,” he said. “We’d like to see this type of regulation continue, but we’ll have to play it by ear.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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