A red-hot walleye bite and ideal ice conditions lured a record number of anglers to Upper Red Lake this winter.
Through January, officials tallied 1.5 million angling hours, easily besting the record 1 million set last winter.
"It was crazy,'' said Gary Barnard, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager in Bemidji. "With the Internet, word of a hot bite spreads quickly, and people are very mobile now with these wheeled ice-fishing houses.
"It was pretty incredible to see all the houses coming up on those peak weekends. It was quite a rush.''
How hot was Red Lake? Fishing pressure there might have exceeded that of Lake of the Woods, which averages about 1.5 million hours each winter. If so, it likely would be a first, Barnard said.
Red Lake anglers harvested 127,000 pounds of walleyes through January. "We were hoping to be at 116,000 pounds for the whole winter,'' Barnard said. So, starting Jan. 23, the DNR reduced the walleye bag limit from three to two. A 17- to 26-inch protected slot had been in effect since Dec. 1, with one walleye over 26 inches allowed.
The safe walleye harvest level for the entire year is 168,000 pounds, so the DNR might have to retain the two-fish bag when the open-water season opens in May, Barnard said. Harvest restrictions are necessary to comply with a joint walleye harvest plan agreement with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
"We're in uncharted territory," Barnard said. He said the walleye population remains strong, and the DNR will meet with band members to discuss the situation before regulations are set for spring. It might be possible to allow the higher walleye harvest, Barnard said.
The winter walleye season on inland waters ended Sunday.
Eelpout festival winners
An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 hearty souls turned out for the International Eelpout Festival last weekend in Walker, a celebration of the ugly but edible eelpout. Calen Zubke of Laporte caught the biggest, a 10.55-pound monster. Kevin Joslyn of LaPorte caught the highest "tonnage,'' an impressive 173.97 pounds of 'pout.