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Lake of the Woods update: Fall survey confirms strong walleye and sauger populations

Jan 06, 2019 12:51PM ● By Editor
As part of the September fall gillnet survey on Lake of the Woods, fisheries crews set four, 250-foot nets at each of 16 sites on the Minnesota side of the lake from the south shore to the Northwest Angle, leaving the nets in overnight and checking them the next day. Photo: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

By Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald - January 6, 2019

Walleye and sauger populations on Lake of the Woods continue to do well, although walleye numbers are slightly below long-term averages since 2002, results from a September fish population survey show.

According to Brett Nelson, large lake biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn., the annual fall gillnet survey yielded an average of 15.25 walleyes per net, down from the long-term average of 17. Saugers, at 26 per net, were up from the long-term average of 20.6, Nelson said.

Both tallies remained above minimum management goals of 14.5 for walleyes and 15.75 for saugers, he said.

"Overall, things are looking really good this year for both walleye and sauger," Nelson said.

As part of the survey, DNR fisheries crews set four, 250-foot nets at each of 16 sites on the Minnesota side of the lake from the south shore to the Northwest Angle, leaving the nets in overnight and checking them the next day.

Three of the sites are in deeper portions of Big Traverse Bay—33 to 37 feet—with the remaining sites in shallower water 25 feet or less closer to shore. The offshore sites tend to produce higher catches of saugers and tullibees, along with some of the larger walleyes, Nelson said.

The survey traditionally begins the Tuesday after Labor Day and continues for 17 days.

Based on the survey, the 2011, 2013 and 2014 walleye year-classes were strong, with the 2016 and 2017 year-classes of average strength.

A year-class refers to fish from a particular year's hatch recruited to the population.

"There was a fair amount of 7- to 8-inch fish and a little bit of a gap between the 8- to 12-inchers," Nelson said.

Those gaps likely resulted from lower hatches in 2016 and 2017, he said.

"We saw really good walleye production (in 2018), and that's probably where we're going to see a lot of those smaller fish, 6- to 8-inchers, right now," Nelson said.

By the numbers

Based on long-term data, walleyes on Lake of the Woods are 12 inches long at age 3, growing to about 16 inches by age 5.

The abundance of walleyes in the 15- to 16-inch range is above the long-term average, and the percentage of walleyes 20 inches or longer is well within management goals, Nelson said.

"Our management goal is 5 to 15 percent, and we were just over 10 percent," he said.

Fishing this winter is off to a fast start on Lake of the Woods, and the sauger catches confirm what anglers have been seeing. Unlike walleyes, which tend to be most active during low-light hours, saugers are active throughout the day and are the bread and butter of Lake of the Woods' booming ice fishing tourism industry.

"We've seen pretty good sauger production basically since 2014," Nelson said. "We haven't really seen any weak year classes.

"Likely, the fish you're seeing there (this winter) are the ones from those year-classes from 2014 up until now—the 9½- to 13½-inchers."

Typically, a year-old sauger on Lake of the Woods is 6 inches long, growing to 8 inches at age 2, 10 inches at age 3 and 12 inches by age 4. The largest sauger sampled during the September survey was a 19-inch female that was 12 years old.

Other species

Also popular among wintertime anglers, perch numbers were above long-term averages, Nelson said. The September survey tallied an average of 16 perch per net, compared with the long-term average of 13.

"We typically see very nice size structure of perch—several fish over that 10- to 12-inch range," Nelson said.

Catches of tullibees—also known as ciscoes—a key forage species anglers frequently catch through the ice, were down slightly, Nelson said, especially along the near-shore sites.

"We just didn't see as many of them near shore, but offshore was just kind of above where we see our average," Nelson said. "Together, it's looking a bit lower for our ciscoes. We probably just didn't have a really good year-class (in 2018) would be my guess.

"I think the last three years have been pretty good for cisco—2015 through 2017—and then just a little bit below average this year."

Overall walleye catches were evenly distributed throughout the U.S. portion of the lake during the survey period, as well, Nelson said.

"We typically see strong catches right around the Garden (Island) and Driftwood (Point) area, and we had pretty good catches up there again," he said. "Since I've been here, some years, the south shore was kind of devoid of walleyes and we were getting them up at the Northwest Angle. Where this year, in my opinion, it was a lot more equally distributed from the South Shore up to the Angle."

To read the original article and see more of Brad Dokken's Outdoors reporting, follow this link to the Grand Forks Herald website.

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