Walleye abundance in Lake of the Woods is down from recent years, but sauger numbers continue to ride a high that should bode well for ice fishing prospects if Mother Nature cooperates.

Those are the key findings from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ annual fall population assessment on Lake of the Woods.

According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn., the fall survey yielded an average of 12.8 walleyes per gillnet. That’s down from an eight-year average of 16.9, Talmage said, but the three-year “moving average” since 2018 is about 15, which falls within the DNR’s management goal of 14.75 walleyes per net in Lake of the Woods.

Phil Talmage, area DNR fisheries manager, Baudette, Minn.
Phil Talmage, area DNR fisheries manager, Baudette, Minn.

As part of a new management plan adopted in 2018, the DNR uses the three-year average to estimate walleye abundance in case there’s an “off-year” when survey results might not reflect the actual population, Talmage said.

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“Even with gillnets, it’s still fishing,” he said.

About the survey

As part of the survey, which begins in early September and continues for 17 days, DNR fisheries crews set nets at sites from the southeast corner of the lake to the Northwest Angle, pulling the nets the next day and tallying the size and abundance of species they catch.

The same sites are sampled each year.

As part of the annual fall population assessment on Lake of the Woods, DNR fisheries crews set gillnets at sites along the Minnesota side of the lake for 17 days, leaving the nets overnight and pulling them the next day. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
As part of the annual fall population assessment on Lake of the Woods, DNR fisheries crews set gillnets at sites along the Minnesota side of the lake for 17 days, leaving the nets overnight and pulling them the next day. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

While walleye abundance is down, sauger numbers remain well above management goals, Talmage said. During this year’s survey, crews sampled an average of 25.7 saugers per net, which exceeds both the management goal of 15.7 and the three-year moving average of about 24.6 saugers per net since 2018, he said.

That trend can be attributed to strong year-classes from 2014 through 2017, Talmage said. A year-class refers to the number of fish from a particular year’s hatch that are recruited to the population.

“We’ve strung together several strong year-classes in a row,” Talmage said. “That’s starting to show up, so right now with sauger, not only is the abundance really high, but there’s a really quality size distribution of saugers from 11 inches all the way up to 17 inches.

“Those length groups are all above their long-term averages.”

The survey also yielded a “fair number” of saugers in the 18- to 19-inch range, Talmage said, which is large by Lake of the Woods standards.

“Those are still few and far between as far as what ends up in anglers’ buckets, but there’s a good, harvestable population of saugers out there right now,” he said.

Weak hatch drives decline

The drop in walleye abundance results from a weak 2017 year-class, which was the poorest hatch since 2004, Talmage said. The 2016 walleye hatch was “kind of average,” as well, he said.

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As a result, there are fewer of the 13- to 14-inch walleyes that fall into the bottom end of keeper size.

On the upside, the 2018 and 2019 year-classes look to be fairly strong, Talmage said. Those walleyes now are in the 8- to 11-inch range, and their abundance is well above long-term averages, Talmage said. That should boost the population of keeper-size walleyes in coming years, he said.

“The harvestable-size walleyes, the 14- to 18-inch fish, we’re below average in abundance, and that’s because of those weak 2016 and 2017 year-classes,” Talmage said. “They’re down a little bit, and obviously, we still have good numbers of big fish out there.”

Larger walleyes remain relatively abundant in Lake of the Woods. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Larger walleyes remain relatively abundant in Lake of the Woods. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Even with the drop in abundance, Talmage said walleye numbers in Lake of the Woods are better than 2008, 2009 and 2010, when the survey yielded lower catch rates throughout that period.

There’s nothing unusual about a weaker hatch, Talmage said, a trend that can be driven by springtime weather and other environmental factors. It’s normal for year-classes to fluctuate from year to year, and for a couple of strong hatches to be followed by weaker hatches, Talmage said.

“You see numbers go down and come back up,” he said. “It’s not boom or bust. Boom or bust would be one good year-class and then, 10 years later, you have another good year-class. What we see here a lot of times is we’ll string together a three- to four-year period with some pretty good production, and then, not surprisingly, we’ll have a couple of down years.

“In the end, it works out just fine, and I anticipate based on what we’re seeing from the 2018-19 year-classes is that next year’s catch will be going back up again.”

Addressing concerns

The numbers don’t reflect the concerns some anglers have expressed that the walleye population is out of balance, Talmage said. Even though 13- to 14-inch walleyes are less abundant, it’s not like they’re missing from the population, he said.

“We still have a lot of fish out there, it’s just that compared to what we normally have in that 13- to 14-inch length group, we’re lower,” Talmage said. “But there’s still a lot of them out there.

“One of the things that I think scares people even moreso – fishing’s fishing, and if you don’t have a great day, it’s easy to look and say there are so many people out here and that last winter was such high pressure.”

Pressure indeed was high last winter, and anglers logged a record 2.8 million hours of ice fishing activity on the big lake, but the walleye harvest was on par with recent winters, Talmage said.

The hike in winter pressure likely resulted from poor ice conditions on other popular walleye lakes elsewhere in the state, Talmage said.

“We did have record-setting pressure,” he said. “We didn’t actually see a huge jump in walleye harvest last winter.”

The DNR didn’t conduct a summer creel survey to measure fishing pressure and harvest, but by all accounts, summer traffic was heavier than recent years because of the Canadian border closure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether the pandemic affects ice fishing pressure on the big lake remains to be seen. The DNR again will conduct a winter creel survey on Lake of the Woods, Talmage said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw more activity here in the summertime because people couldn’t get into Canada,” Talmage said. “As a (lake) trout angler, I go to Canada in the wintertime but I don’t think there’s a huge chunk of people coming from the states going to Canada to ice fish with wheelhouses and things like that.

“I don’t know why you would. We have great fishing right here, and you don’t have to go through the border.”

Lake of the Woods notes

  • The DNR wasn’t able to conduct its annual summer trawling survey on Lake of the Woods to sample for young-of-the year fish hatched in 2020 because of state COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time. The survey requires three people in the boat, Talmage said, which would have violated social distancing guidelines. “One of the things we did lose this year was our ability to make predictions on the 2020 year-class,” Talmage said. The September survey did yield a “fair number” of 2020 fish in the gillnets, he said, but any estimate on the strength of the year’s walleye hatch “is all just speculation.”

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  • Sampling throughout the summer failed to produce any adult zebra mussels on Lake of the Woods, but the abundance of veligers, the larval stage of the invasive mollusks, continues to increase. The DNR in November 2019 confirmed finding larval zebra mussels at a site in Muskeg Bay near Warroad, Minn., but sampling this summer found veligers at multiple sites, Talmage said. The abundance wasn’t “crazy high,” he said, but “it does suggest that we do have zebra mussels in the lake, so obviously they are reproducing.”

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  • The DNR will conduct its next summer creel survey on Lake of the Woods in 2022, Talmage said.