Hot bite, high pressure drop walleye bag to two

By Tim Spielman Outdoor News

Bemidji, Minn. — In anticipation of good fishing and great angler interest, and as a means to keep walleye harvest within a pre-determined “safe harvest range,” the DNR implemented more restrictive rules for walleye anglers on Upper Red Lake this winter.

But even those changes – a daily bag reduced from four to three, and a broader protected slot of 17 to 26 inches – couldn’t keep state anglers on Upper Red from shattering the harvest mark from last December. That also prompted the DNR this week to cut the daily and possession limit for walleyes on the lake to two fish. One walleye over 26 inches is allowed in possession. The regulation begins Jan. 23.

While ice angling’s been popular on Upper Red for several years, this year weather conditions and other factors set the stage for the December record-setter, when about 77,000 pounds of walleyes were harvested, according to Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji.

“What occurred was a couple things,” Barnard said. “There was an excellent bite, and there was already ice on the lake in November, so (the official ice-fishing season, for harvest-tracking purposes) began Dec. 1. It made for a full month of high harvest and a good bite.” Ice anglers came to the lake in droves.

“The pressure is really off the charts,” Barnard said.

He said an increase in mobility caused in part by more “wheel houses” on lakes, along with much cheaper gas, likely led to heightened pressure on Upper Red. Also, slower bites on other big, northern waters likely pushed some fishermen to the Waskish area.

But greater fishing pressure originally was at least somewhat unexpected. “Usually when (regulations) are more restrictive, it drives the (fishing) pressure down,” he said. “But it didn’t.”

Will it now, when the new rules take effect Jan. 23? Usually fishing pressure slides as winter progresses. Not so yet this year. “The pressure hasn’t let up at all,” he said. “It’s very noticeable in the area.”

Barnard said greater restrictions were needed for a couple reasons. First, the state must be within a particular harvest range for a three-year average of walleye harvest, per an agreement with the Red Lake Nation. Also, the summer harvest season is still months away. “We really need to save some of the harvest for the summer,” Barnard said.

A year ago, when the winter walleye harvest was about 120,000 pounds, the summer take was about 112,000 pounds. Last year’s December take of walleyes was about 50,000 pounds, meaning harvest this year is up 57 percent.

Barnard said the department had hoped to keep winter harvest below 118,000 pounds of walleyes, but now, that doesn’t appear likely. He said the DNR likes to work through such matters as they pertain to Upper Red with a local advisory group. While there wasn’t much time to offer opinions regarding the recent change, Barnard said group members understood the situation.

“They were very supportive of this,” he said. “They understand the ramifications of if we don’t (make changes). When we called and told them about this, nobody was surprised.”

Todd Mortenson, of Mort’s Dock, is one of those group members. “The catch rates were really good in December,” Mortenson said Tuesday. “Red Lake has really been the go-to lake in December the last two years, and this year was no different. Our catch rates have been so good, so I think people will understand. That’s kind of my take. “It’s not because we have a lack of fish. We have agreements that we have to live by between the state and the Red Lake Nation. We have to get our averages down where they belong. We have to bite the bullet and do it for now.” Red Lake Nation controls more than 80 percent of the combined 285,000 surface acres of Upper and Lower Red lakes. Band members are allowed to harvest about 830,000 pounds of walleyes – most for the band’s commercial processing operation – each year. Tribal hook-and-line ice anglers are allowed to take fish between 13 and 22 inches; there’s a 100-walleye bag limit for the harvest of walleyes caught for the commercial fishery.

Javier Serna contributed to this report.