A record number of perch are swimming in Lake Pepin and its riverine backwaters this winter to the delight of ice anglers from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Fisheries biologists for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources attribute the population surge to consecutive years of high water during the spawning season — a trend that also has pushed walleye counts in the basin to near-record highs.

"We've been expecting this for the past couple of years because of the good reproduction'' said Nick Schlesser, DNR large lake specialist based in Lake City.

He recently gave a presentation over Zoom to a Rochester area fishing club that showed how consecutive years of high water in Lake Pepin and the rest of Pool 4 have helped produce a series of strong year classes of walleye and perch. Pool 4 is the 35-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that flows between dams in Red Wing and Alma, Wis.

Schlesser said the size of perch in the fishery hasn't been much to brag about in past years. But DNR gillnets in the agency's annual October fish population survey caught an average of 3.5 perch in the range of 10 to 14 inches — better than normal.

"The perch are beautiful,'' said Kevin Stauffer, DNR's area fisheries supervisor in Lake City. "I don't know if you can find a better perch fishery right now.''

By far the most popular winter fishing locations for yellow perch are located on backwaters downstream and upstream of Pepin. In particular, fishing pressure has been tremendous south of Pepin on the Wisconsin side of Pool 4. Most access to that rugged areas is by foot or ATV. One particularly well-known spot is on the Wisconsin side across from Wabasha.

The DNR's Lake Pepin gillnet survey has been conducted annually since 1965, always during the first week of October. Twenty-four gillnets sized to catch a cross section of the lake's most popular game fish are set for 24-hour periods. All netting locations are within Lake Pepin proper, but the results reflect fish populations throughout Pool 4 because fish tagging studies show extensive movement.

In last year's survey, the average number of adult perch captured in the nets was 21.8, a whopping 53% improvement on the previous record set in 2011. Moreover, Schlesser said he's optimistic that the population will remain strong.

The record gillnet capture for walleyes in Lake Pepin came in 2002, when DNR collected an average of 11 per net. The same gillnets caught an average of 9.25 walleyes in 2020 — the second most in the 55-year history of the netting survey. Pepin also is home to a sizable sauger population and DNR's 2020 survey nets captured an average of about 30 sauger and walleye combined.

"Everything looks good"

Even before the October findings were released, the fisheries office in Lake City noticed a surge in fishing pressure during last year's open-water season. Besides a noticeable abundance of walleye, sauger, perch, smallmouth bass and northern pike, anglers benefited from the return of normal water levels and fair weather. In addition, fishing increased statewide because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Just about everything looks good on Pepin right now,'' Stauffer said. "We finally had a year without summerlong flooding and fishing was really good.''

Schlesser said the previous five or six years of extensive flooding drove strong walleye and perch production because it submerged a ton of terrestrial vegetation. Perch, for instance, hang their eggs on the inundated plants like garland. Their most pronounced spawning areas are downstream of Pepin in backwaters in the Wabasha area.

For walleyes, much of their identified spawning habitat lies upstream of the lake in areas of flooded vegetation around backwater channel banks and islands. Much of that habitat is close to Red Wing, Schlesser said

He said it's historically odd for Pepin to be swamped with water for so long. As a result, the fishery produced five strong years of walleye classes between 2013 and 2019. Last year's walleye hatch also could produce a strong class.

Pepin is unique in Minnesota because of its high nutrient load. Pepin walleyes grow fast because of an abundance of forage. They prey primarily on calorie-rich gizzard shad while also feeding on perch and a host of minnow species. By the end of three summers, a baby walleye can grow to 18 inches in length.

"To be honest, I'm surprised you can find a fish that's hungry out there,'' Schlesser said.

Pepin's combined bag limit for walleye and sauger is four, but all keepers must be a minimum of 15 inches and only one can exceed 20 inches. By August of last year, many Pepin walleyes born in 2018 were big enough to keep. Under special regulations, walleye fishing never closes on Pepin and the remainder of the Mississippi that borders Wisconsin.

Stauffer said he is looking forward to 2022 when the DNR is scheduled to conduct its next season of angler surveys. The so-called creel surveys will help quantify fishing pressure and catch rates for game fish. The last creels on Pepin were conducted in 2019, a year of poor fishing conditions because of high water.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213