Rainy Lake's Sunny Forecast
Walleye fishing on this big border lake is booming. Why?
By Tom Dickson
"I'm pretty sure this one's in the slot," says Barry "Woody" Woods of Ranier, as he reels in a walleye from Rainy Lake and holds it up to a plastic ruler glued to the inside of his boat. The "slot" is the 17- to 25-inch length range within which all walleyes caught on the Minnesota side of this Canadian border lake must be released. The fish's tail touches the 18-inch mark, which means Woods has to let it go. The thing is, he doesn't mind one bit. It's the 40th or so (we lost track after a while) walleye our group of three has caught in just four hours this sunny mid-July morning. Woods plucks his hook from the walleye's mouth and slides the fish back into the water. "I could do this all day," he says, grinning.
Many days, he does. Woods, who runs a guide service, and other Rainy Lake anglers are catching--and releasing--more fish than ever before on this 220,000-acre lake, which is recovering from more than three decades of sub-par walleye fishing and population levels. Catch rates have tripled from an average of one walleye caught per 4.5 hours of fishing in the 1980s to one per 1.5 hours today. And here's a twist: Because of the experimental slot-size limit, which began in 1994 and runs until 2000, some anglers have trouble catching anything except big walleyes.
"A lot of days we have a tough time getting fish small enough to keep for shore lunch," says Al Renollet, for 30 years a fishing guide on Rainy Lake.
Renollet and other guides aren't complaining, however. Rainy's rebound has meant booming business for resorts and other fish-based enterprises. "For months we've been turning away customers wanting to come up in August," says fishing guide Billy Dougherty.
What accounts for Rainy's recovery? Local anglers can't say enough good things about the slot limit. Department of Natural Resources biologists agree that the experimental regulation is helping. But they add that just as important was the end of commercial fishing in the 1980s, along with favorable spawning conditions that have naturally produced several strong year classes. A year class is a generation of walleyes hatched the same spring.
"I think what brought Rainy back is a combination of all these things," says Kevin Peterson, DNR area fisheries supervisor.
Clean, Cold, Sterile
Rainy forms the westernmost portion of a constellation of large lakes--including Kabetogama, Namakan, and Crane--stretching along Minnesota's border with Ontario. Typical of Canadian shield lakes gouged out by glaciers from a "shield" of ancient bedrock, Rainy's waters are clean and cold. They also are relatively sterile. Rainy's 54,000-acre Minnesota portion is roughly equal in size to Lake Winnibigoshish, located 60 miles south. Yet anglers on average harvest just 17 percent of the poundage of walleyes from Rainy that they do from the shallower and far more fertile Winnie.
"Rainy is basically just water and rock," says Jeff Eibler, DNR large-lake specialist for Rainy. "It won't ever be a Winnie or Mille Lacs." That doesn't mean it can't produce lots of fish, he adds, only that it has ecological limitations.
Limits, ecological or otherwise, weren't much on the minds of the Europeans who settled this rugged area in the late 1800s. Many saw a huge potential profit from the lake's virgin fishery. The Sandusky Fish Co. opened in 1896 and other operations soon followed, netting lake sturgeons, whitefish, northern pike, and walleyes to ship east to Chicago and other cities.
By the 1920s commercial fishing was taking more fish than the lake could replace. In 1924 the Minnesota Game and Fish Commission unsuccessfully tried to close Rainy to commercial fishing, citing concern that unregulated netting was harming the sport fishing potential. Because commercial fishing operators held more political influence than recreational anglers did, the netting continued. From 1920 to 1950, the annual commercial walleye take on the Minnesota side averaged nearly 50,000 pounds--nearly twice what biologists believe the fishery can withstand to sustain itself.
"Those nets knocked the hell out of walleye stocks on Rainy," says Dennis Schupp, DNR fisheries biologist.
Roll Up the Nets. In the late 1940s, Minnesota began to phase out commercial operations on the U.S. side by ending new license sales and buying out the netters. But many commercial crews gave up grudgingly. Not until 1985 did the last Minnesota commercial fisherman roll up his nets for good. Within a few years, almost all commercial walleye netting on the Canadian side ceased too.
Rainy's walleye population struggled to recover from decades of overharvest. Throughout much of the 1970s and '80s, DNR test nets showed walleye abundance below the lake's historical average. Angler harvest rates some years dropped as low as one walleye per 17 hours of fishing.
The depleted fishery also needed a break from the growing sport angling pressure. In the late 1980s, biologists from Minnesota and Ontario concluded that thousands more spawning-sized fish had to survive each year to restore Rainy's walleye population.
"We estimated that, when healthy, Minnesota's portion of Rainy could safely yield about 33,000 pounds of walleyes per year," says Eibler. "But because the walleye stock was in a state of recovery, we needed to reduce the target yield by 40 percent to 20,000 pounds."
To get harvest that low, the DNR, with the support of area anglers and the Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club, proposed a slot limit that requires anglers to release all walleyes between 17 inches and 25 inches and to keep no more than one over 25 inches. The experimental limit allows anglers to keep small fish to eat, along with one large trophy.
No Easy Sell
Such a walleye regulation is no easy sell. Anglers don't mind releasing feisty bass and muskies, because these species are caught for the fight. But walleyes, wet rags on a fishing line, are traditionally pursued to produce fillets. Many anglers see no sense in catching walleyes just for fun.
Yet in 1986, at the suggestion of the local DNR fisheries crew, the sportfishing club began promoting voluntary catch and release as a way to improve flagging fish stocks. At first most anglers balked. Then in 1988 the club began offering a free fishing cap to anyone who released one or more fish in the slot limit. Catch and release caught on.
"That first year we gave out only 450 hats," says club president Dave Peterson. "In 1997 we gave out 2,800." A yearly ice-fishing derby fund-raiser and a $20,000 Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources grant pay for caps and free plastic rulers to measure walleyes caught.
These days Rainy anglers brag about the big ones they let get away. Many even release the one 25-inch-plus fish they're allowed to keep. Eibler says that last year, anglers released 89 percent of all 25-inch-plus walleyes caught. Each week The Daily Journal of International Falls prints the names of anyone who reports releasing a fish in the slot-size range. "Sometimes we get so many names we have to go down to 6-point type to fit them in," says editor Tom Klein.
In recent years the DNR has heard reports of anglers releasing 34- to 36-inch walleyes--fish that would weigh 14 to 17 pounds. "It's very possible we'll break the state record [17 pounds, 8 ounces] in the next five years," Eibler says.
Despite the goodwill surrounding the slot limit, biologists politely point out a more significant reason for the recent good fishing: Several strong walleye year classes are now reaching catchable size. "You don't want to play down the importance of catch and release," says Eibler, "but what's really driving this fishery are the year classes."
Whether a year class is strong, containing more walleyes than usual, or weak depends on environmental conditions. For example, lake waters need to be warm enough in summer to boost young walleye growth, which helps the fish survive their first winter.
Biologists determine the relative strength of a year class by seining shallows each summer to capture fish hatched the previous spring. Fall test netting and angler surveys indicate how previous year classes are faring. The information helps biologists predict the abundance of various sizes of fish from year to year.
Predictions for Rainy are rosy. Its walleye year-class strength increased throughout the 1980s, climbed to a new high in 1991, then skyrocketed in 1994 and '95. The 18- to 22-inch walleyes from the '91 year class compose the bulk of angler catch these days. The '94 and '95 classes could send catch rates soaring in coming years.
Biologists estimate that a strong year class comes along about every five years or so. So what explains three occurring in such a short time? "I think that one factor contributing to increased recruitment through 1991 may have been the recovery of the brood stock [spawning walleyes] following reduced harvest," says Don Pereira, a DNR expert in year-class abundance. "The large year classes in 1994 and '95 may be due to other factors such as good environmental conditions for spawning and young survival."
Rainy Lake walleyes reproduce abundantly when springtime water levels rise, as they often did during the 1990s. According to DNR research biologist Paul Radomski, high water in May allows walleyes to spawn on silt-free rock rubble shoals. "That's ideal habitat for walleye eggs," he says.
Unfortunately, spring water levels on Rainy are no longer so favorable for walleye spawning. Since 1996 a Canadian company, Abitibi Consolidated, has operated the water-control structures at the Fort Frances hydropower dam that determine lake elevation. From 1988 until 1996, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had required Boise-Cascade, the previous dam operator, to maintain high spring water levels. Though Boise-Cascade preferred stable water levels to maintain consistent power generation from the dam, the paper company complied. Because Canadian companies aren't bound by U.S. FERC rulings, Abitibi has not complied, and springtime lake levels have been unnaturally stable in recent years.
That could change, however. A committee of U.S. and Canadian citizens and officials has submitted a proposal to the International Joint Commission, a group that resolves border water issues, asking for a return to more natural lake levels on Rainy.
"We're still waiting for a decision," says Radomski.
Yet another factor: In 1994 Ontario ruled that U.S.-based anglers must release fish caught in Canada unless the anglers spent a night in Canada. Many anglers have since boycotted Rainy's northern bays, thus reducing harvest there by 80 percent. Walleyes respect no borders, however, and roam to and from the Minnesota side. "All those fish are now still within the system," says Kevin Peterson of the DNR. "That's probably another factor behind this great fishing we're seeing up here."
Biologists use qualifiers such as "probably" and "likely" a lot when talking about Rainy because so many factors appear to contribute to good fishing. What biologists do know for certain is that even with the slot limit, anglers are now taking more than 30,000 pounds of walleyes out of the Minnesota side of Rainy each year--50 percent more than the target. Minnesota and Ontario have agreed to keep angler harvest near sustainable levels.
"We have a responsibility to stay close to what we consider a safe level of harvest," Peterson says. "As good as the fishing has been lately, if we took the regulation off after 2000, the harvest could go through the roof, and I don't think anyone really wants that."
The biggest question now is whether the current harvest--even with the slot limit--is cutting too deep into Rainy's walleye stocks. The DNR plans to reevaluate the target harvest level in early 1999 and begin discussions with anglers about what--if any--regulation changes will keep harvest closer to what the fishery can sustain.
If that means anglers keep fewer fish, that's just fine with Ray Garcia of St. Paul and his grandson Ian. On a warm and breezy summer afternoon, the two anglers have finished a successful day on Rainy. They released three walleyes over 17 inches and a 12-pound northern pike.
"If we don't let these fish go, there won't be any for the kids when they grow up," Garcia says, putting an arm around his grandson. Chimes in the 12-year-old, "Yeah. I want to catch fish when I come back here next year."
Tom Dickson, staff writer for the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife, frequently contributes articles and cartoons to The Minnesota Volunteer.