Anglers on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River-including Four-Mile Bay-will face tighter regulations beginning March 1, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says.

The DNR on March 1 will reduce the winter limit on Lake of the Woods from an aggregate of eight walleyes and saugers-of which no more than four can be walleyes-to an aggregate limit of six, with only four walleyes allowed.

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As always, anglers must release all walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches and can keep one trophy walleye longer than 28 inches.

The changes will standardize bag limits throughout the season on Lake of the Woods.

Meanwhile, on the Rainy River and Four-Mile Bay, walleye fishing will be catch-and-release only from March 1 through April 14, the end of the spring season on Minnesota-Ontario border waters. Previously, anglers could keep two walleyes smaller than 19½ inches in length during the spring season on Rainy River and Four-Mile Bay.

Regulations on Rainy River and Four-Mile Bay will be the same as Lake of the Woods from the mid-May walleye opener through February, the DNR said.

According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn., the regulations are designed to maintain quality fishing amid increasing pressure.

Anglers last winter logged some 2 million hours of ice fishing time on Lake of the Woods, Talmage said. At the same time, spring electrofishing surveys have documented a decline in the number of male walleyes being sampled in the Rainy River, he said.

On years when weather and water conditions are right, anglers by the thousands converge on Rainy River for the opportunity to catch trophy prespawn walleyes. The harvest has skewed toward 17- to 19-inch male fish that are prime spawners, which is reflected in the drop in male walleyes seen in spring surveys.

"People realize there's a lot of pressure on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River, and I think a lot of people realize this is a step in the right direction," Talmage said. "One thing I can say is our walleye and sauger populations both look very healthy, but we don't want to push them to the point where we push them off the edge and run into issues.

"This is a proactive approach of long-term sustainability."

New management plan

The upcoming regulation changes come on the heels of a new five-year management plan the DNR developed for Lake of the Woods with input from a 14-member input group during five meetings from December 2017 through this past May.

The group included anglers, county officials and tourism interests.

"It was a diverse group," Talmage said. "We had anglers from around the state bringing in different perspectives."

While the management plan includes a number of provisions for Lake of the Woods fish species, reducing the limit to bring walleye and sauger harvests in line with management goals was a key focus, Talmage said. The DNR manages Lake of the Woods with a goal of maintaining a six-year harvest average of no more than 540,000 pounds annually for walleyes and 250,000 pounds annually for saugers.

The harvest for both species currently exceeds goals, Talmage said, and winter pressure continues to rise-in large part driven by the popularity of deluxe wheeled fish houses and an established infrastructure of plowed ice roads.

"Our summer harvest-there's good summers and bad summers, there's good bites and just average bites-but pressure is limited by the number of beds" on the lake and in nearby towns, Talmage said. "Whereas that winter fishery, it seems to be resilient-there are no sideboards on where that pressure can go. And the trajectory hasn't plateaued yet. We're seeing 2 million hours of (winter) pressure, and 20 years ago, we didn't even see a million hours."

The DNR received 227 comments on the Lake of the Woods walleye and sauger regulations, Talmage said. Of those respondents, 178, or 78.4 percent, supported reducing the limit to six, and 29, or 12.8 percent, supported keeping the current winter regulations.

"There was just a constant resonating voice of, 'Where is this all going with all the pressure?'" Talmage said. "The expansion is kind of going in all directions, but it does seem we undoubtedly have more wheel houses or self-sufficient ways that people can get out there and fish."

The Rainy River proposal drew 232 comments, and 157, or 67.7 percent, supported the spring catch-and-release regulation, 15.1 percent supported maintaining the current regulation and 36 of 40 people who supported an alternative suggested closing the spring season completely on Rainy River and Four-Mile Bay.

"We're very happy with the amount of public input we received," Talmage said.