Minnesota’s northwest corner is blessed with diverse landscapes that include many of the state’s best walleye fishing lakes. Among these are Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Leech and Cass. As summer winds down, we look back at angling success on these waters, and consider pending harvest proposals intended to keep them among the state’s top walleye fishing destinations.
Perhaps no Minnesota lake has been so generous with its walleyes as this lake was on opening weekend, when limits were taken by nearly ever angler. The only question was how quickly an angler’s four-walleye threshold was reached.
The strong bite continued through mid-June, said Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes, stationed in Bemidji.
“But as lake water temperatures in Upper Red climbed into the mid- to upper-70s, the bite really tailed off,” Drewes said, “and with it, the harvest.”
A walleye’s metabolism — and appetite — slows in warm water, Drewes said. Additionally, forage fish such as yellow perch become abundant by midsummer, reducing the need for walleyes to chomp on anglers’ leeches or other bait.
Upper Red’s harvest regulation allows anglers four walleyes, with one more than 17 inches. This “slot” targets the lake’s plentiful walleyes in the under-17-inch range, and was implemented to allow anglers to draw down a portion of these fish.
As good as spring and early summer walleye action was on the lake, that didn’t happen.
“Because the bite tailed off in the warmer water, I think our summer harvest will come in a little less than we were hoping for,” Drewes said. “As a result, we expect this winter to have the same harvest regulations in place on Upper Red.”
Lake of the Woods
Anglers who drive the more than 300 miles that separate the Twin Cities from the southern shore of Lake of the Woods generally try to do so as quickly as possible. With good reason: the lake — “LOW,” for shorthand — is beautiful and it’s chockablock full of walleyes, sauger, crappies, northern pike and muskies.
Which is both blessing and bane. Blessing because LOW is an island-studded, Minnesota and North American treasure like no other. Bane because, despite its distance from the Twin Cities, LOW is seeing ever-increasing angling pressure.
To retain its reputation for great fishing, the DNR is proposing regulation changes that, if finalized, will take effect March 1.
One is to reduce the combined winter walleye-sauger limit from its current eight to six, only four of which can be walleyes. The other would cut the current two-walleye limit, with none over 19.5 inches, on Four Mile Bay and the Rainy River during the special spring season that runs March 1 to April 14.
Walleye fishing would still be allowed at this time, but no harvest would be allowed.
“We think these regulation changes will help keep Lake of the Woods the premier fishing destination it is,” Drewes said.
Fifteen years ago, this northern Minnesota gem was believed to be relatively bereft of walleyes. Reasons for their absence varied. One theory was that cormorants — large, gangly fish-eating birds — devoured too many of the lake’s delectable walleyes, blunting chances their population would recover.
But recover it has. So much so the DNR is hoping to significantly relax Leech Lake walleye harvest regulations next spring. Instead of the current four-walleye limit, with a protected, no-harvest slot of 20-26 inches (one more than 26 inches is allowed), the proposed regulation would grant anglers four walleyes with one longer than 20 inches.
“The harvest increase that would occur would be a result of adaptive fisheries management,” Drewes said. “When the population of a species is down, we place stricter regulations on its harvest. When the population recovers, we relax those regulations, allowing anglers to take advantage of the higher fish numbers.”
Assuming the regulation is finalized, Leech Lake anglers next summer will be able to harvest some walleyes they’ve had to release in recent years because the fish fell within the 20-26 inch protected slot.
“Early spring walleye fishing on Leech this year was good, but many of the fish that were caught were larger, in the protected slot,” Drewes said. “In the second and third weeks of the season, the sizes were more diverse. But when the lake temperature pushed the upper 70s by July 4, the daytime bite was difficult.”
The plus side to Leech’s warm summertime water: Many muskie anglers reported excellent action.
This 16,000-acre beauty is often overlooked when considering the state’s best fishing lakes. That’s unfortunate, because statuesque pines ring its shorelines, lending it a signature North Woods charm, and its walleyes are abundant.
But Cass Lake’s waters are extraordinarily clear — thanks to the presence of zebra mussels. These invasive little critters didn’t hurt early spring fishing on Cass, Drewes said, but some walleye anglers needed to adjust tactics to be successful as the summer wore on.
“We didn’t do a creel survey on Cass this summer,” he said. “But by all accounts, there was a tremendous amount of fishing activity on the lake.”
Recent DNR fish population surveys show Cass has plentiful numbers of 14- to 17-inch walleyes, many from a record hatch in 2013.
As on other lakes in the region, by midsummer, as water temperatures warmed, sunset and even nighttime angling on Cass were sometimes required to be successful — especially given the lake’s zebra-mussel-induced clear water.
But unlike on Leech, Upper Red and Lake of the Woods, which most often yield walleyes to anglers using leeches and other live bait, Cass sometimes can favor those who troll crankbaits over the lake’s sand flats ...
At or after dark.