A reader and avid Lake of the Woods fisherman took me to task the other day for a recent story I wrote about a Campbell, Minn., angler who boated "at least 60" walleyes over 25 inches during a June trip to the big lake.
TJ Harig, who backed up his claim by sharing several photos with me, said his two days on Lake of the Woods served up the kind of fishing he may never experience again. As per Lake of the Woods regulations, which require anglers to release walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches, Harig said he released all of the big walleyes but also caught eater-size fish.
I'm a sucker for a good fish story, and part of my job is sharing the successes (and failures) of hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts so I was quick to bite when Harig shared his tale.
In addition, truth be told, between the pandemic and storm damage from a recent and ongoing barrage of severe weather at our property, this summer it seems I'm having to fish vicariously through the stories and experiences of others.
My friends will attest that this undesirable turn of events has made me quite cranky, at times.
My story on Harig's trip to Lake of the Woods had a similar effect on a fisherman whose family for years has owned a cabin on the south shore of the Lake of the Woods and fishes there frequently.
"Pretty disappointed," was his reaction to the story.
"Not sure why anyone would want to tell that story, especially as poor as the fishing has gotten over the past few years due to the extreme pressure on the lake," he wrote. "Maybe you'd want to do a story on the more realistic side of a person that has fished the lake for about 50 years that can't hardly catch a keeper anymore between mid-June and September."
Just the previous week, he said he'd spent more than 15 hours fishing Lake of the Woods and caught only two keepers.
"So when I see or read a story like this I just bristle!" he wrote. "I hope his next 10 trips are like mine so he won't be so quick to brag."
He added: "Something needs to be done to either decrease pressure or limits (or both), but a 'one in a million' story like this doesn't help."
While the harsh reaction caught me off-guard, I have had similar concerns, especially about the level of winter fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods. During a mid-February snowmobile/ice fishing trip to Oak Island on the Northwest Angle, I saw plowed roads and a city of wheelhouses all the way to Garden Island, some 25 miles from the south shore of the lake.
Time was, anyone with a snowmobile had that part of the lake more or less to themselves.
A series of columns I wrote about the increase in winter fishing pressure generated tremendous response from other anglers, most of whom also had concerns about the amount of ice fishing pressure.
The numbers are staggering.
Based on results from a creel survey the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducted this past winter, anglers logged nearly 2.8 million hours of ice fishing time on the big lake from December through March, smashing the previous record of 2.1 million hours during the winter of 2019.
This past winter's number likely would have been even higher if the pandemic hadn't brought travel to a screeching halt in the second half of March.
Anglers also kept an estimated 243,803 pounds of walleyes and 461,240 pounds of saugers this past winter. By comparison, anglers during the winter of 2019 kept 370,000 pounds of walleyes and 479,000 pounds of saugers.
So, harvest this past winter was down, despite a substantial increase in fishing pressure, based on the DNR creel survey results.
Out of balance?
Another longtime Lake of the Woods fisherman from my hometown of Roseau, Minn., told me he thinks the lake is out of balance and has too many big walleyes, fish that either fall within the protected slot or are even larger.
"It's a strange phenomenon when you're fishing and you set the hook and you say it feels too big and nobody gets the net very fast," he said. "Then you set the hook and say, 'This feels like a keeper.' Man, (they) get the net right now because you're finally going to get one to eat."
I shared the two anglers' frustrations with Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn. As I reported in December, the DNR's annual fall population survey on Lake of the Woods, which begins the Tuesday after Labor Day and continues for 17 consecutive days, yielded walleye and sauger numbers that both exceeded DNR management goals.
The survey produced good numbers of 13- to 15-inch saugers and above-average abundance of 15- to 19-inch walleyes; 13- to 14-inch walleyes were slightly below historical averages in last fall's survey.
Asked this week how he'd respond to the claim that Lake of the Woods is out of balance, Talmage said current regulations do a "great job" of protecting spawning-size fish, which means the abundance of larger walleyes is not surprising.
"We do monitor the entire fishery very close, and at this time we have very good numbers of fish below the protected slot," Talmage said; "keepers" less than 19½ inches, in other words.
If anglers aren't catching keeper-size walleyes in time-worn locations, Talmage suggests trying different areas.
"They're out there," he said. "Lake of the Woods is a large and dynamic lake, and walleye can move around a lot."
Wherever you stand on Lake of the Woods, its fishing pressure and current walleye population trends, be nice to the messenger.
The last time I caught a walleye, or even had an opportunity to fish for them, was during my February ice fishing trip to Lake of the Woods.
Maybe I'm taking this pandemic too seriously, but I've almost forgotten what a walleye looks like. And it's making me crankier by the day.
That being said, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts if you're a frequent Lake of the Woods angler; hit me up.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.