Field Notes: Red Lake Update
That's the story at Red Lake, where walleyes-millions of them-are growing again following the population bust of the early 1990s.
"The Red Lake recovery is nothing short of phenomenal," said Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager at Bemidji. "Though true recovery won't occur until the lakes contain many different year classes of mature fish, we are over the hurdle. Walleye are abundant again."
The walleye's rise from demise is increasingly evident. Recent DNR test netting indicates the stocking of 41 million walleye fry in 1999 was a huge success. So was the stocking of 32 million fry in 2001. Fry stocking in 2003 contributed mightily as well.
"As a result, come spring Upper and Lower Red lakes will hold the largest year class of mature walleye in well over a decade, and two strong year classes are right behind," said Drewes. "Remarkably, we have gotten to this point in only five years."
Red Lake-actually two shallow basins totaling 275,000 acres-had been a successful commercial, sport, and subsistence fishery for most of the 20th century. Its walleye population, however, began to fluctuate widely by the 1970s due to overharvest. This boom-and-bust cycle finally busted for good in the early 1990s.
To heal the ailing lake, state, federal, and tribal resource managers joined together in 1999 to develop the Red Lake Recovery Plan. They prescribed a total walleye harvest moratorium, stepped-up enforcement, and science-based fry stocking. And they let nature take its course.
"We gave the lake the rest and the shot of fish it needed," said Drewes. "That was the cure. Now we need to work on stable, sustainable, and collaborative forms of fish management."
The specifics of management will take shape in the next few years. Walleye angling is expected to reopen sometime between 2006 and 2009. How to reopen walleye fishing will be the subject of much debate because it represents the rare opportunity to invite anglers back to a recovered world-class fishery.
"We want anglers to enjoy this fishery as soon as possible but not at the expense of a population setback," said Drewes. "Inherently, this means conservative fishing regulations at first followed by monitoring and data evaluation." Drewes said a conservative approach makes sense, in part, because Upper Red Lake is a relatively easy lake to fish: Fish bite during the day; it has uniform bottom structure; and simple bait (jig and minnow) works.
Many anglers already know this, especially those who have been wetting lines for Red Lake crappies through the ice. These anglers-in pursuit of the massive 1995 year class of crappies that exploded during the walleye void-have been catching a lot of walleyes. Last year many anglers actually caught more walleyes than crappies as crappie numbers waned toward a more natural level.
The big question is this: Can anything be done to prevent the walleye population from collapsing again? Yes. The DNR, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are committed to complete recovery and sustainability. They have enlisted the expertise of the University of Minnesota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Red Lake Fisheries Association to achieve that goal.
"There are more players and cooperation than ever before," said Drewes. "Together, we want to put the collapse behind us and a lot of good fishing ahead of us."