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Commentary: LOW, Rainy limit proposal seems reasonable

As John Myers of Forum News Service reported a few days ago, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is proposing to reduce the winter walleye-sauger limit on Lake of the Woods from eight, of which no more than four can be walleyes, to six, with no more than four walleyes.

The proposal also calls for a catch-and-release-only walleye season on Rainy River from March 1 through April 14. Anglers currently can keep two walleyes under 19.5 inches during the spring season on the Rainy.

The proposed regulation changes are buried deep in the bowels of a draft management plan the DNR developed to guide management on the big lake over the next five years. A 14-member Lake of the Woods fisheries input group provided recommendations on the plan during the course of five meetings between December and May.

The plan, available online at mndnr.gov/lakeofthewoods, addresses everything from the potential impact of aquatic invasive species to management goals and objectives and fisheries surveys, but the proposed regulation changes will garner the most attention.

The DNR is taking comments on the management plan through July 11, but there will be a 90-day comment period on the proposed regulation changes after they're formally announced this week, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn.

The DNR will post the proposal at access points along the lake and conduct public input meetings in October, Talmage said.

The goal is to bring walleye and sauger harvests on Lake of the Woods back in line with management objectives, Talmage said. The DNR wants to maintain a six-year harvest average of 540,000 pounds annually for walleyes and 250,000 pounds annually for saugers.

"For both walleye and sauger, we're currently over our targets," Talmage said. "Both of those recommendations would serve to help reduce the amount of harvest on both species."

Personally, I'm fine with lower limits. They're a necessary proactive step, I believe, to maintain the quality of fishing on Lake of the Woods—which is excellent—in the face of ever-increasing angling pressure, especially in the winter.

Driven by the exploding popularity of wheeled fish houses and a network of plowed roads that often extends 20 miles or more onto the lake, anglers have logged some 2 million hours of ice time on the big lake in recent winters, DNR creel surveys show.

That's a staggering amount of pressure, and in light of that pressure—essentially, the fish have no sanctuary anymore—something has to give.

At the same time, spring electrofishing surveys on the Rainy River have shown a marked decline in male walleyes during the spawning run, Talmage said. Those are the walleyes anglers who fish the border river in the spring are keeping, and spring creel surveys confirm that trend.

"It does focus harvest on male fish, and a high portion of the fish anglers are harvesting are males," Talmage said. "They're not 12-inch males getting put into livewells—they are the mature males going up the river to spawn."

I don't fish the Rainy in the spring as much as I once did, but it's the opportunity to get in the boat again after a long winter and potentially catch a trophy-size walleye that draws me when I go.

A catch-and-release-only regulation during the spring season maintains that opportunity.

"When we do our spring survey every year, our catch rates are still good, but the proportion of males to females is smaller than what we see on a lot of other spawning runs where the DNR takes eggs in the spring," Talmage said.

Some years, less than 10 percent of the walleyes sampled on the Rainy during spring surveys are males, and it's frequently less than 20 to 25 percent, Talmage said.

It will be interesting to see how the angling public responds to the DNR proposal.

Stay tuned.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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