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Walleye anglers on Leech, Upper Red rejoice

It wasn’t that long ago that the only walleye news out of Leech Lake and Upper Red Lake was bad news.

No longer.

According to the DNR, test netting results on Leech show a strong walleye population as the Cass County lake continues to rebound from walleye-fishing lows of the early to mid-2000s. And on Upper Red, the DNR announced that its winter fishing regulations will include a significantly wider slot limit. Upper Red also is on the rebound after being closed to walleye fishing through the early and mid-2000s while the population was being re-established.

On Leech, results of recent fall test netting by the DNR indicate that the walleye catch rates remain above the long-term average for the sixth consecutive year.

“September gill nets showed good numbers of both juvenile and adult walleye,” said Matt Ward, large lake specialist in Walker. “It is encouraging to have a balanced walleye population within and outside the protected slot limit of 18 and 26 inches.”

Strong 2010 and 2011 year classes are present and the DNR expects these walleyes to start showing up as harvestable fish this winter, the agency said. Additionally, 35 percent of walleyes sampled were within the slot limit, which will provide anglers more opportunities to catch a large fish, the DNR said.

The number of young-of-the-year walleye – those hatched during the spring of 2012 – sampled with trawling and electrofishing were above the long-term average for each gear type. The average size for this year class was good, at 6.1 inches during the mid-September electrofishing assessment. Larger sizes in the fall usually translate to higher winter survival, according to the DNR.

Lake-wide, walleye counts in DNR test nets averaged 9.42 walleye per net lift, which was similar to results from the past four years and was above the long-term average of 7.7 walleye per net lift. Walleye numbers indicate that management actions implemented under the 2011-2015 Management Plan are succeeding, the DNR said. Key elements of the plan include special fishing regulations, walleye fry stocking, cormorant management and an increased emphasis on aquatic habitat protection. A booming cormorant population was mostly blamed for walleyes all but disappearing from the lake in the early 2000s.

At Upper Red, the DNR is in the process of changing regs for a 20- to 26-inch protected slot limit will remain throughout the 2012-13 winter walleye season. The daily bag and possession limit also would remain at four fish with one fish longer than 26 inches allowed.

“This is a significant change from previous winter seasons when the protected slot limit would revert back to 17 to 26 inches on Dec. 1,” said Gary Barnard, Bemidji area fisheries supervisor.

The change was prompted by annual harvest estimates below the target harvest range the last two years. DNR discussions with the Upper Red Lake Citizen Advisory Committee last March and again in September confirmed that current open-water regulations have been popular and effective, according to the DNR.

For the last four years, the protected slot limit on Upper Red Lake has been 17 to 26 inches from the May walleye opener through June 14, when catch rates are high and spawning stock most vulnerable. Since 2009, there has been a mid-season slot limit adjustment to 20 to 26 inches from June 15 through Nov. 30. At its September meeting, the advisory committee unanimously agreed to recommend that the open-water regulations remain the same and to focus on winter regulation changes to encourage additional harvest.

The proposed regulation change is expected to increase harvest to within the yearly target harvest range of 84,000-168,000 pounds, according to the DNR. Increased harvest projections are based on several factors including the probability that more fish will be vulnerable to harvest, an increase in the average size of fish harvested and the likelihood of additional angling pressure.

Walleye abundance on Upper Red Lake remains high, with new record gill net catch rates experienced in the 2012 assessment, according to the DNR. Spawning stock also remains high, indicating excellent production of young walleye in recent years, according to the DNR. Additional harvest of walleye from 17 to 20 inches may be beneficial to maintaining good growth rates and improving the proportion of larger fish in the population, the agency said.

BRIAN S. PETERSON is a freelance writer based in northern Minnesota.