How much is too much?
That’s a question many people probably are asking this winter about the fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods.
Between wheelhouses, a bustling winter resort industry, savvy anglers who are well-connected through social media and a network of plowed ice roads that now extends upwards of 20 miles out on the lake in places, the fish don’t have many places to hide. The “No Man’s Land” in the middle of Big Traverse Bay, the 330,000-acre expanse that forms the bulk of Minnesota waters, used to provide a sanctuary for fish in the winter because it was inaccessible to everything but tracked vehicles.
Not when favorable ice and snow conditions -- like those so far this winter on the big lake -- allow ice road operators to plow roads as extensive as the ones now in place. This past week, a fisherman I know reported seeing a Toyota Prius parked on the ice more than 10 miles from shore.
Try doing that on Lake Winnipeg.
The fishing pressure is even more pronounced this winter because of deep snow and slush conditions on other popular northern Minnesota fisheries such as Upper Red, Cass, Leech and Winnibigoshish.
Lake of the Woods has dodged the worst of the snow, and ice and access conditions are favorable.
As Plan Bs go, Lake of the Woods is a great winter option, of course, not only for its walleye fishing but perhaps even more so for saugers, those tasty, but smaller walleye cousins that traditionally bite all day and not just an hour or two in the morning and again before dark like their glassy-eyed counterparts.
Throw in a network of maintained ice roads that allows compact cars to fish several miles from shore at a modest fee, and I can’t help but wonder how much pressure the lake can withstand before the quality of fishing takes a turn for the worse.
They probably wouldn’t say so publicly, but resorts that shuttle customers to rental houses in tracked vehicles can’t be happy about how extensive the roads are becoming, either. Nor are the do-it-yourself anglers who invested in snowmobiles or other tracked vehicles to haul portable shelters to distant locales “beyond the plowed ice road.”
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution because no one is doing anything wrong. It’s a public lake, after all, and everyone fishing Lake of the Woods has a right to do so, providing they’re legally licensed and adhere to the limits in place to protect fish populations.
Other than adjusting season lengths and bag limits, there’s no way to regulate fishing pressure as long as Mother Nature cooperates.
That’s where this winter could get dicey.
Based on results from a creel survey the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducted last winter on Lake of the Woods, anglers logged an estimated 2.1 million hours of fishing pressure -- about 200,000 hours above average winter pressure during previous creel surveys.
This winter’s numbers likely will be even higher.
Fishing last winter was good, and the numbers showed it. Based on creel survey results, anglers last winter kept 370,000 pounds of walleyes and 479,000 pounds of saugers on Lake of the Woods, both considerably higher than the 2013-18 winter average of 215,000 pounds and 300,000 pounds, respectively.
The walleye and sauger harvests both are creeping above target, the level DNR managers feel the lake can sustain without having a negative impact on the population. As I’ve reported in the past, the walleye target is 540,000 pounds annually, averaged over a six-year period, and the sauger target is 250,000 pounds annually.
Anglers last winter alone kept nearly twice the annual target for saugers, along with 95,000 pounds during the open water season for an annual tally of 574,000 pounds. Meanwhile, anglers last year kept an estimated 640,000 pounds of walleyes between the winter and summer harvests.
That number is less concerning, I’m told, because the six-year average is closer to the target. No doubt, though, the sauger numbers seem worrisome, even though DNR surveys show sauger numbers remain strong.
The DNR is conducting another creel survey this winter on Lake of the Woods, and I wouldn’t be surprised if fishing pressure is closer to 3 million hours than the 2.1 million hours the survey tallied last winter. Time will tell.
The results could be just a blip because of the crazy conditions that have occurred this winter on other northern lakes, but the pressure bears watching because options for stemming the tide are limited.
The DNR already lowered limits last winter on Lake of the Woods in response to the increasing pressure and harvest, dropping the aggregate walleye-sauger limit from eight to six, with no more than four walleyes, same as the summer limit.
Whether that’s enough remains to be seen.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.