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Survey sheds light on Lake of the Woods ice fishing

Ice houses dot the south shore of Lake of the Woods near Pine Island, Minn., in December 2010. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said anglers this past winter logged 1.94 million hours of ice fishing time on Lake of the Woods, based on creel survey estimates. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 1 / 3
Anglers kept about 257,000 pounds of walleyes and 279,000 pounds of saugers last winter on Lake of the Woods, results from the DNR's 2017-18 winter creel survey show. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service2 / 3
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has posted signs at accesses on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River informing anglers about potential regulation changes and plans for an October public meeting. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources3 / 3

BAUDETTE, Minn. — Anglers again this past winter spent nearly 2 million hours ice fishing on Lake of the Woods, results from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' winter creel survey show.

According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, anglers logged 1.94 million hours of ice time on the big lake last winter, keeping about 257,000 pounds of walleyes and 279,000 pounds of saugers.

As part of the survey, a creel clerk counts fish houses and interviews anglers on the ice to gauge fishing pressure, harvest and angler demographics. The survey began Dec. 16, 2017, and ended March 25, 2018.

This past winter's walleye harvest is on par with the average for the past six years, while the sauger harvest is slightly below the six-year average, Talmage said. The six-year average for saugers was driven by high harvests from 2012 through 2017, when fish from a series of strong year-classes in the mid- to late 2000s were recruited to the fishery, Talmage said.

There were a lot of saugers to catch, in other words, and anglers took advantage.

During the winter of 2011-12, for example, anglers harvested nearly 370,000 pounds of saugers on the big lake during survey period, creel estimates show. Anglers also kept about 353,000 pounds of walleyes during that creel survey period

Winter fishing pressure has averaged 1.8 million angler hours since 2012, compared with 779,145 hours during the summer season, Talmage said, although there wasn't a summer creel to measure pressure and harvest in 2017.

For comparison, winter pressure during the 1990s ranged from 643,000 angler hours to 925,000 angler hours.

"When you look back at it, you don't go that many years back, and we were never even at 1 million, and now we average 1.8 million" angler hours during the winter, Talmage said. "I guess the big take home with (the survey) is that it was pretty much just a normal, average, what you come to expect good winter of fishing on Lake of the Woods this year," Talmage said.

Signs inform anglers

In related news, the DNR has posted signs at access points on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River informing anglers about proposed changes to winter sauger regulations on Lake of the Woods and spring walleye regulations on the Rainy River.

The DNR is proposing to reduce the winter limit from an aggregate of eight walleyes and saugers, with no more than four walleyes, to six walleyes and saugers, with no more than four walleyes—same as the summer limit.

On the Rainy River, walleye fishing would be catch-and-release only during the spring season.

The new regulations would take effect March 1, 2019, the start of the new license year.

The goal of the winter proposal is to bring the sauger harvest back in line with DNR management targets in the face of consistently high fishing pressure. The sauger harvest over the past six years has averaged about 405,000 pounds annually, which far exceeds the target of 250,000 pounds, Talmage said.

The annual walleye harvest since 2012 has averaged 597,000 pounds during DNR creel surveys, more than 50,000 pounds above the target harvest of 540,000 pounds, Talmage said.

The target harvest refers to the amount of fish DNR fisheries managers feel the lake can sustain without having a negative impact on the population.

Implementing a catch-and-release-only spring season on the Rainy River would help protect spawning male walleyes, which have shown declines in recent years, Talmage said. Current regulations allow anglers to keep two walleyes less than 19½ inches long during the spring season.

Ultimately, it's all about maintaining the quality of fishing anglers on Lake of the Woods have come to expect.

"There's a reason why it's a world class walleye fishery," Talmage said. "We've all been to other lakes and had good fishing here and there, but Lake of the Woods is a place people can go year in and year out and have a chance at a good fishing trip."

The DNR will conduct public comment meetings in October on the proposed regulation changes, with further details coming when the meetings are set. More information is available at mndnr.gov/lakeofthewoods.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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