Lake of the Woods: Survey shows healthy walleye, sauger population

Walleye numbers on Lake of the Woods have bounced back from a period of lower abundance, and the outlook for saugers is equally optimistic, results from an annual fish population survey show.

Tom Heinrich
Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., records data on fish sampled from Lake of the Woods during the DNR's annual fall population assessment in September 2008. The DNR recently wrapped up this year's fall survey, and walleye and sauger populations are looking good, Heinrich said. (Herald file photo)

Walleye numbers on Lake of the Woods have bounced back from a period of lower abundance, and the outlook for saugers is equally optimistic, results from an annual fish population survey show.

According to Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., the annual fall assessment on Lake of the Woods produced a catch rate of about 20 walleyes and 20 saugers per net.

That compares with a long-term average of 15 walleyes and 12 saugers per net, Heinrich said. The DNR conducts the survey right after Labor Day, setting gillnets at 16 near-shore and 12 offshore sites around the Minnesota portion of the lake.

This year's survey began Sept. 6 and wrapped up Sept. 24.

Strong sauger catch


Heinrich said the survey also yielded strong catches of 12- to 14-inch saugers -- smaller cousins of the walleye and a staple of Lake of the Woods' booming ice fishing industry. More than half the saugers sampled were in that size range, Heinrich said, and catches of 14- to 15-inch saugers also increased.

Heinrich said strong sauger hatches from 2005-2007 comprise the bulk of the larger fish.

"The sauger population right now is in really good shape," he said.

At the peak a few years ago, survey nets were producing 30 saugers per lift, Heinrich said, but many of those fish were too small to keep.

The saugers now have reached "keeper" size, which means it's a good time to be an angler on Lake of the Woods.

"As far as the sauger population goes, the overall abundance is going to keep going down" as more fish are kept, Heinrich said. "But the really nice-sized fish are going to be around for at least another three-four years or so."

Walleye rebound

Heinrich said walleye catches bottomed out at slightly less than 10 fish per net about three years ago after a series of weak to moderate hatches reduced the overall abundance. Hatches have improved the past four or five years, though, Heinrich said, and that's reflected in the netting survey.


"There's a pile of nice-sized walleye" in the lake, he said. "Everything from 12 to 20 inches is present in very good numbers."

A work stoppage that resulted from the Minnesota government shutdown in July prevented fisheries crews from conducting their summer survey to sample for young-of-the-year fish, Heinrich said, but the recent fall assessment yielded higher-than-average numbers of young walleyes measuring about 7 inches.

Typically, Heinrich said the nets produce less than one young-of-the-year walleye during the fall survey; this year's catch averaged 3.5.

"That's strongly suggestive of something good going on," Heinrich said. "I really wasn't expecting a lot from our walleye hatch because of that. It looks like at very worst, we'll get an average year-class, and if fall gillnetting is any indication, a very good one. I'm pretty happy with either one of those."

A year-class refers to fish produced from a particular year's hatch.

The high number of small fish also pushed up the overall walleye catch rate, Heinrich said. Walleyes from this year's hatch won't be big enough to keep until about the winter of 2014, he said, but they'll be about 8 inches long this winter, and anglers probably will catch a few.

"It will be interesting to see if people pick up a lot of those things this winter," Heinrich said. "If they do, it adds some more credibility that it will be a strong year-class."

Other findings


A few other survey highlights:

- After several weak perch hatches, there seems to have been at least a fair year-class produced last year. "We saw a bunch of perch that were 5, maybe 6 inches long so it looks like we've got at least a moderate perch year-class coming up," Heinrich said. The big lake may never be a premier perch destination, but it routinely kicks out some real jumbos. "It always amazes me how many perch bigger than 12 inches long" are in the lake, Heinrich said. "They're pretty impressive."

- The crew caught a 40-inch muskie near Long Point along the south shore, nowhere close to the Ontario portion of the lake that holds the bulk of the population. "We seem to catch one about every five years," Heinrich said. "Normally, it's right along the Canadian border, which is where Lake of the Woods gets into the muskie habitat."

- Heinrich said the survey also produced more crappies and smallmouth bass than usual, but the numbers weren't high enough to suggest a trend. The Minnesota portion of Lake of the Woods traditionally has low numbers of both species.

- The gear used in the survey isn't effective at catching northern pike, Heinrich said, but crews sampled pike up to about 43 inches. The DNR conducts a spring northern pike survey on Lake of the Woods every five years, which provides better information on the status of the population.

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

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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