Walleye Fishing on Leech Lake
"The good news is that walleye stocking worked. The better news is that the naturally reproduced walleye were even more abundant." Pat Rivers, large lake specialist with the DNR Fisheries Walker office.
Leech Lake - the Northwoods Come Back Kid
This is the story of one of the greatest comebacks in Leech Lake history. You may have heard how the walleye appeared to be even more mysterious and elusive than usual in 2004 and 2005. What you may not know are the details of the massive campaign to combat this perceived decline, and how spectacularly those efforts have succeeded in restoring the number and health of the walleye in Leech Lake to previous levels of angling perfection.
Walleye vs. Cormorants - Cormorants won...
The DNR has concluded that the primary reason for walleye population decline was two-fold. First, walleye fishing was a victim of its own success. In the 1990s, anglers harvested enormous numbers of the prized fish out of Leech Lake. Second, the numbers of a walleye-gorging birds living in the Leech Lake area, the cormorant, exploded from 73 nesting pairs in 1998 to more than 2500 in 2004. Huge flocks of cormorants could be seen stalking the waters of Leech, flying low to scan for their prey and dive-bombing down to pluck another of the lake's crown jewels from the water. In this fashion, the average cormorant consumed a pound of walleye per day in the summer months. Normally, nature keeps its own balance, and holds such predators in check via predators of their own. But as it so happens, cormorants have no natural predators.
By 2005 all the communities around Leech Lake could see the writing on the wall. An unfair fight was taking place and someone had to intervene on behalf of the defenseless, adorable, and delicious walleye.
Thus, an ad hoc committee of concerned locals, calling themselves the Leech Lake Task Force, teamed up with the Department of Natural Resources and the Leech Lake Band of Objiwe and put together a 5-year strategy called the Leech Lake Action Plan, which called for the following actions:
Leech Lake Action Plan
• Restock Leech with baby walleye, called fry and fingerling,
• Kill off 80% of the cormorants
• Limit the number of reproducing female walleyes that could be taken out by anglers.
Walleye stock from Boy River run by Woman Lake was identified as being the closest genetic match to Leech walleye. The fish were marked with oxytetracycline, an antibiotic that leaves an identifiable mark on fish bones, enabling the DNR to identify walleye as stocked fish when they are caught later.
Cormorants were 'taken out' to the tune of:
• 2,993 in 2005
• 3,303 in 2006
• 2,784 in 2007, for a total near 9,000 birds culled; leaving the total number of 563 nesting pairs, plus some additional juveniles.
Regulations limiting anglers to pulling four walleye a day out of Leech, requiring all walleye from 18-26 inches be returned immediately back to the water, and allowing only one walleye over 26 inches, were implemented and remain in affect.
The Results of the Leech Lake action Plan
Although the success of the 2007 Governor's Fishing Opener on Leech Lake, with Governor Pawlenty pulling multiple walleye out of Leech, was much-publicized evidence that there were walleye to be had, other more scientific tests and fish sampling clearly indicate a full walleye recovery or comeback. Since 1983 Leech Lake has been one of ten large lakes in Minnesota tested annually with variety of technologies to monitor all statistics of the lake, including fish populations, growth rates and size distribution.
The average number of walleye caught in a gill net sample in 2004 was 5. The goal of the Leech Lake Action Plan was to increase that back to the historical average of 7.5.
The 2007 gillnet catch rate was 13.1 walleyes per net was the second highest on record, and nearly double the 1983-2007 average of 7.5 fish/net.
The median lengths of the 2005 and 2006 year classes were 15 and 12 inches total length, respectively.
The number of age-8 and older fish caught in gill nets has increased from 1 in 2001, to 54 in 2007. This fact indicates that the protected slot limit is having a positive effect on the population.
The percentage of fish sampled which are marked as stocked fish has dropped from 2006 to 2007, which is an indicator that the lake has reached walleye capacity, the walleye classes indigenous to Leech are thriving and there is no problem inherent in their genetic strain.
Back to a Happy Natural Balance!
Leech Lake as an ecosystem can only sustain a certain number of fish, and DNR biologists believe the lake has likely been restored to its most natural balance. Any further stocking would result in young walleye competing for a limited food supply, so a greater percentage of them would not succeed in putting on enough weight to survive through their first winter.
In sum, everything that could be done by man to maximize the number of healthy walleye has been done, and there are many indicators of better-than-expected success. Some serious fisherman in the area say there were always plenty of walleye. They'd just didn't stick in their usually places; you just needed to look around more