Lake of the Woods resort owner Mike Kinsella remembers what it was like 15 years ago when early spring walleye fishing on Four Mile Bay and the Rainy River was a largely unexplored delight, primarily enjoyed by locals.
“If you were going to close your resort up here, that would be the time to do it,’’ he said.
But just as throngs of ice anglers in the past decade have descended on the south shore of Lake of the Woods, so too have fishing boats multiplied on Rainy River’s open water in what has become a smashing prelude to the state’s traditional walleye opener.
In both cases, the crush of people has invited new controls. And depending on one’s viewpoint, the harvest restrictions proposed last week by Minnesota go too far in putting fish off limits or provide a sensible hedge against over-exploitation.
“Something needs to get done here,’’ said Phil Talmage, Lake of the Woods area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “These changes are being considered to maintain long-term sustainability.’’
Talmage and several members of a citizens group involved in proposing a smaller walleye and sauger harvest are adamant that all game fish populations on the expansive border lake are in fine shape. Yet biologists have flagged two unsettling trends: Gross over-harvest of saugers during winter and the disappearance of a large cohort of male walleyes during spawning runs on the Rainy River.
The answers? Cut the winter bag limit for saugers and halt the early spring walleye harvest on Four Mile Bay and the Rainy River. Anglers could still catch and release walleyes during that season from March 1 to April 14.
“The goal is sustainability of the fishery,’’ said citizens group member Ed Arnesen, whose family has operated Arnesen’s Rocky Point Lodge for the past 120 years. “It’s a protective measure … to be ahead of the curve instead of behind it.’’
Said Talmage: “Lake of the Woods is such an impressive and resilient resource. Nobody wants to see the fishery pushed to the edge.”
He said area resort owners have largely embraced the proposed changes. Walleye and sauger catch rates remain high and tourism officials want to keep it that way. After all, Baudette is one of at least seven American towns claiming status as “Walleye Capital of the World.’’
But in the upcoming public comment period, not everyone who cares about the lake and its main stem river will be patting the DNR on the back.
“We’re losing ground as outdoorsmen,’’ said Chris Granrud, owner of RainyDaze Guide Service. “My number one goal is a healthy fishery … but there shouldn’t be something wrong with keeping a fish and eating a fish.’’
The first question Granrud gets from prospective walleye fishing customers is, “How many can we keep?’’ When bag limits are eliminated on various waters, the state is losing tradition and a substantial group of anglers uninterested in casting for “sport.’’
Moreover, Granrud said, the proposed catch-and-release restriction for Four Mile Bay and Rainy River (all the way to Rainy Lake in International Falls), discriminates against a class of anglers modestly equipped with 12- to 16-foot boats. Meanwhile, owners of expensive wheelhouse ice-fishing rigs will continue to “whack and stack’’ walleyes for taking home. Why not cut the walleye winter bag by one instead of wiping out the two-walleye limit in the much shorter open-water season in spring, he asked.
“You can fish the river in a 12-foot jon boat,’’ Granrud said. “We are losing that simplicity … I think this plan has a lot of holes in it.’’
Talmage said it’s true that unprecedented winter fishing pressure along the south shore has pushed the annual walleye harvest 10 percent beyond the DNR’s preferred range for sustainability. But there’s greater concern over the annual sauger harvest, swollen to an average of 405,000 pounds — 60 percent beyond the agency’s yearly target.
The south shore never used to attract more than 1 million hours of fishing effort per winter. Now the pressure exceeds 2 million hours, with ice anglers hooking nearly 80 percent of the year-round sauger take.
By comparison, summer fishing effort on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods has ranged only from 750,000 hours to about 800,000 hours.
The DNR is proposing to cut the winter season possession limit of eight walleyes or saugers to six fish, with no more than four being walleye. That’s an effective cut of two saugers per bag.
“Right now the sauger population is healthy,’’ Talmage said. “We don’t want to find out the break point.’’
For the early spring season in Four Mile Bay and on the Minnesota side of the Rainy River, the DNR is proposing to wipe out the two-walleye bag limit established in 2004. That would reduce the annual walleye harvest, especially considering that fishing pressure during the season has quadrupled in the past 15 years, Talmage said.
But the proposed catch-and-release season is more directly aimed at restoring normal density of male walleyes in spawning activity that takes place just after early spring fishing ends April 14.
The season’s catch dwells on male walleyes because regulations demand that all fish longer than 19.5 inches be returned to the water. The rule was meant to protect female spawners because female walleyes don’t reach full maturity until they’re 19.5 inches long.
According to a standardized DNR electro-fishing survey conducted each April about halfway between Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, female walleyes now dominate the water where spawning takes place. For instance, in last year’s sample of 526 walleyes, 484 were female. Fifteen years ago, the same survey was finding more males than females.
Talmage said the DNR is tracking strong overall walleye reproduction in Minnesota waters of Lake of the Woods, but the imbalance of males to females on a key spawning ground in the Rainy River is a concern.
“It’s being done to protect the spawning,’’ he said.
Kinsella said the opportunity to catch a lot of walleyes, including those of the lunker variety, will keep the early spring season vibrant.
“The opportunity to catch a big one is the main reason people come up,’’ Kinsella said. “People are spending money on bigger, faster boats and they want to get them out and put them to use as early as possible.’’
He said high catch rates have become all-important.
“Absolutely people want to take fish home,’’ Kinsella said. “But more and more the proper way to manage the resource is to make sure you are putting them back.’’
Gary Korsgaden, an avid fisherman from Park Rapids who sits on the advisory panel providing input to the DNR, said the proposed changes were framed mostly out of consensus.
“There’s some skepticism whether it’s enough, but only time will tell,’’ he said.
The founding member of F-M Walleyes Unlimited in the Fargo-Moorhead area said his biggest long-term concern about Lake of the Woods is pressure from ice anglers. He’d like to see a larger enforcement effort to ensure anglers are sticking to the smaller bag limit, if it passes. The change would unify winter and summer bag limits for walleye and sauger on the south shore.
“We’ve reached the top of the curve,’’ Korsgaden said. “You have to put the resource first.’’
Talmage said the DNR’s mainstream indicators covering the big lake’s walleye and sauger fishery are all “thumbs up’’ despite the introduction of several invasive species: spiny waterfleas, rusty crayfish and rainbow smelt. Zebra mussels lurk in the headwaters to the Bigfork River, a major tributary to the Rainy River, which flows into Four Mile Bay.
He said Lake of the Woods keeps producing walleyes and saugers at impressive rates. Two of the strongest year-classes of fish were born in 2011 and 2013. Those 2013-born fish have grown to 17 or 18 inches in length. In recent times, only 2008 and 2012 were considered weak years for reproduction.
Talmage said he doesn’t know when the proposed changes will be decided. Yellow signs were posted last week at access points on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River to alert people to the process. Public input meetings likely will start this fall.
“If we have strong public outcry … then it gets more complex,’’ Talmage said.