Red Lake walleye recovery remains on track
Walleye populations in state and tribal waters of Red Lake continue to do well, almost five years after a harvest moratorium was lifted and fishing resumed.
Members of the Red Lake Technical Committee met Dec. 9 in Bemidji to get an update on the status of the big lake's recovering walleye population. And the outlook, in a word, is good.
"Everything looks great," said Pat Brown, tribal fisheries biologist for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. "We couldn't be happier with what we're seeing."
Red Lake's walleye populations collapsed in the mid-'90s after years of overfishing in state and tribal waters. That set the stage for a recovery agreement signed in 1999 that included stocking more than 100 million walleye fry, total, in 1999, 2001 and 2003 and a moratorium on walleye harvest until the population recovered.
Fishing resumed in 2006, and the lake again has a self-sustaining walleye population.
The technical committee meets twice a year and includes state and tribal officials, along with representatives from federal agencies and the University of Minnesota.
According to Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, both the state and the tribe are keeping fewer walleyes than their quota allows. The state is at about 60 percent of its quota, Barnard said, while the band is at about 50 percent.
As part of an agreement between the two jurisdictions, the band can harvest about 830,000 pounds of walleyes annually, while the state has a maximum harvest quota of 168,000 pounds. During the harvest season that began Dec. 1, 2009 and ended Nov. 30, the band harvested 412,000 pounds of walleyes, Barnard said, while anglers on the state's portion of the lake kept about 100,000 pounds of walleyes.
"The regulations that we're using and they're using are keeping us within the harvest allocation," Barnard said. "There's not a mad rush from either side to reach the top of that harvest zone. That's kind of nice that there's available harvest that's not being used."
Commercial netting in tribal waters remains limited to crews hired by the band's fish packing plant in Redby, Minn., to supplement catches during times of the year when hook-and-line fishing is slower. Tribal members, aside from the netting crews, must harvest fish by hook and line for sale to the fish plant.
According to Brown, the netting crews accounted for about 75 percent of the take during the most recent harvest season, while angling contributed the rest.
That's unusual, though, he said, because an early ice-out last spring kept anglers from the best fishing of the season. In March 2009, hook-and-line anglers caught almost 200,000 pounds of walleyes for the commercial fishery, Brown said, compared with barely 60,000 pounds this past March.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the walleye recovery is the abundance of spawning-stock female fish age 4 and older. The goal, Brown said, is to maintain spawning stock at 2 to 3 pounds per acre, and the lake now is at more than 4 pounds per acre.
Those numbers are based on the results of fall sampling surveys. According to the Minnesota DNR's Barnard, crews sampled walleyes from 1 to 11 years old, with 1- to 5-year-old fish the most abundant.
"Those look real good, so we're getting some pretty steady recruitment to that harvestable size range," Barnard said. "Our spawning diversity looks good. We're not riding on a single year-class."
Barnard said anglers on Red this winter can expect to see plenty of 15- to 16-inch "keeper-size" walleyes, along with the 17-inch-and-larger fish that must be released. Anglers in state waters can keep four walleyes, with a 17- to 26-inch protected slot, from Dec. 1 through the end of walleye season in February and from the mid-May opener until mid-June, when fishing pressure is heaviest. From mid-June through November, anglers must release walleyes from 20 inches to 26 inches with a four-fish limit. One walleye longer than 26 inches is allowed throughout the season.
Despite the abundance of age-classes in the lake, walleyes measuring 20 inches and longer remain scarce. Brown, the tribal biologist, said he looks for that to change over the next few years.
Red Lake is two basins. All 152,000 acres of Lower Red Lake and 60,000 acres of Upper Red Lake are in the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The state manages the remaining 48,000 acres on the east side of Upper Red Lake.
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