Annual fall population survey shows slight decline in Lake of the Woods walleye numbers
A couple of weak hatches in recent years is driving the walleye decline. Meanwhile, sauger populations are booming.
Walleye numbers on Lake of the Woods are down slightly from 2020, the result of a couple of weak hatches in 2017 and 2019, but they’re still within management goals, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager says.
Sauger populations, meanwhile, continue to boom, based on results from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ annual fall population survey on Lake of the Woods.
According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minnesota, this year’s survey yielded an average of 11.5 walleyes per net, down from 12.8 walleyes in 2020, but still at the management goal, a three-year average of 14.5.
Sauger abundance was 23 per net, Talmage says, which is “way above” the management goal of 15.7, and down only slightly from 25.7 saugers per net in 2020.
“We had super strong sauger year-classes in 2014 through 2017,” Talmage said. “The 2015 year-class is the strongest year-class we’ve had since 2006.”
A year-class represents the number of fish recruited to the population from a particular year’s hatch.
Saugers from those strong year-classes now range from about 14 inches up to 16 inches or so, with the occasional larger fish from the remnants of a strong sauger hatch in 2011, Talmage said.
“We have a lot of really nice-sized sauger,” he said.
The trend bodes well for winter fishing prospects, since saugers are a mainstay of the big lake’s booming ice fishing industry. Anglers last winter logged almost 3 million hours of ice fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods, based on results from the DNR’s winter creel survey.
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Saugers tend to bite all day in the winter, and their abundance will help offset the decline in walleyes, which generally are most active during low-light periods under the ice, Talmage said.
“The winter fishing, overall, I think is going to be very good,” he said. “It’s going to be having those walleye opportunities and then filling the gaps in between with the high sauger abundance we have out there right now.”
The DNR conducts the annual fall population survey over 17 days beginning the Tuesday after Labor Day, setting 64 nets at sites across the Minnesota side of the Lake from the south shore to the Northwest Angle and leaving them overnight.
Fisheries crews then tally the number of fish from a given species, measure the fish and determine their gender and state of maturity. The survey is the “bread and butter” as far as collecting data on Lake of the Woods fish populations, Talmage says.
“That’s undoubtedly where we get our most information,” he said.
New management plan
As part of a new Lake of the Woods management plan adopted in 2018, the DNR uses a three-year moving average to monitor walleye abundance in case there’s an off-year when survey results might not reflect what’s actually happening on the big lake, Talmage said.
“Two- and 4-year-old fish usually make up a very big part of our gillnet catch” in the fall survey, he said. “With those two weak year-classes (in 2017 and 2019), that’s really what drove our catch rates to where they’re at, so this is just a matter of a couple of weak year-classes moving through the system, and that’s really what’s driving all of it.”
Anglers can expect to see the trend reflected in the walleyes they catch, as well, Talmage said. On the upside, walleyes had a decent hatch in 2018, and those fish now are about 14 inches long, he says; the 2020 and 2021 year-classes also appear to be fairly strong and will be bait-stealers this winter.
“There are places throughout the length range where we have a gap as a result of those weak year-classes, but once you get to that 17-, 18-, 19-inch (walleye size), we’re back at or above average abundance of those-sized fish,” Talmage said.
The occasional weak year-class is to be expected, Talmage said, especially after several consecutive strong hatches before 2017.
Three to five years ago, there wasn’t a weak year-class of walleyes in the 13- to 19-inch range, he said, a trend that may have inflated angler expectations.
“Having that year in and year out is not realistic,” Talmage said. “There are going to be times when there are gaps. I think people kind of got this idea of what it should look like every year.
“Frankly, it’s impossible to attain that every year.”
Given the abundance of smaller walleyes from hatches in 2018, 2020 and 2021, Talmage says he expects fall surveys to show higher walleye numbers over the next few years.
“We’re going to see this trend start changing,” he said. “We’ll start seeing those numbers climbing back up again.”
Talmage says he continues to hear occasionally from anglers who think the walleye population on Lake of the Woods is out of balance and complain about catching too many walleyes in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot or too many small fish and not enough eater-size fish.
“I do hear it and, I mean, I get it,” he said. “You go out fishing and you want to catch your fish. What I always tell people when I get that call is there’s a lot of variability in wild populations.”
That’s reflected in survey results over the years. In 2018, for example, walleye catches on Lake of the Woods averaged 15.1 per net in the DNR’s fall survey, and the average from 2002 to 2018 was 16.9 per net, survey results show.
At the same time, the 2008 survey only produced about 10 walleyes per net.
“This is nowhere we haven’t ever been before,” Talmage said. “We were lower when I got here in 2008, for that matter. Based on this last three-year moving average, we’re still right at our management goal.”
Walleye fishing this past summer and fall was very good, Talmage says, and the DNR assessments on Lake of the Woods show good reproduction, good spawning biomass of bigger fish and good recruitment of new walleyes to the population.
A stressed fishery, by comparison, tends to follow a boom-and-bust population cycle, producing a banner hatch one year, only to yield little to no recruitment for the next decade or so.
“Actually, (summer 2021) was one of the first years that I did not get any reports of bad fishing,” Talmage said. “Right now, I’d say our fishery is very healthy.”