As expected, ice fishing pressure was high again this past winter on Lake of the Woods, but a sudden end to winter kept it from being a record, results from a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources creel survey show.
Anglers logged just over 2.7 million hours of ice fishing time on the big lake from December through early March, just shy of the record 2.8 million hours the survey tallied during the winter of 2019-20, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn.
- Read more hunting stories in Northland Outdoors
- Read more fishing stories in Northland Outdoors
- Read more recreation stories in Northland Outdoors
Despite the high fishing pressure, catch rates were down for both walleyes and saugers, Talmage said.
The winter survey wrapped up earlier than planned when warm temperatures brought a premature end to ice fishing on the big lake. Typically, winter creel surveys on Lake of the Woods continue through March, Talmage said.
“Our season got cut off kind of abruptly,” he said. “That’s probably enough to account for why it was down just a titch from last year.”
Still, pressure remains “very high,” and the vast network of plowed ice roads, many of which extend 20 miles or more onto the lake, means the DNR will have to adjust the way it conducts winter creel surveys on Lake of the Woods, Talmage said.
Just a few years ago, roads rarely extended more than five or six miles past Pine Island on the southeast corner of the lake, Talmage said. This past winter, GPS tracking showed ice roads extending all the way from Pine Island nearly to Stony Point on the west side of Minnesota waters.
“It’s unreal how it’s changed and how far out those ice roads are,” Talmage said. “And there’s more of them, too.”
Winter fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods has increased about 30% just in the past two years, he said. Initially, Talmage said he attributed the jump during the winter of 2019-20 to poor ice conditions elsewhere in the state.
That wasn’t the case this past winter, and pressure stayed high.
“I actually was expecting that this past winter, we would have seen (pressure) drop back down to that 2 million angling hour level that we’ve been seeing in recent years,” Talmage said. “And then all of a sudden, the season started up, and it was like ‘Whoa, it's not going to do that.’
“This might be the new normal we’re now looking at.”
By comparison, summer fishing pressure averages about 750,000 to 800,000 angler hours, Talmage said, less than half of wintertime levels. The next summer creel survey on Lake of the Woods is scheduled for 2022.
Anglers this past winter kept an estimated 215,000 pounds of walleyes and 312,000 pounds of saugers on Lake of the Woods, Talmage said, down from recent averages of 250,000 pounds and 350,000 pounds, respectively.
The DNR manages Lake of the Woods with a “target harvest” of 540,000 pounds annually for walleyes and 250,000 pounds annually for saugers, averaged over a six-year period, Talmage said.
Walleye harvest in recent years has averaged about 520,000 pounds annually – just below target, based on DNR estimates – Talmage said.
By comparison, the six-year average for saugers is about 430,000 pounds annually, he said.
That’s not a red flag, but it is something the DNR is watching, said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji.
“We’re above the sauger target, but the population right now is at a period of real high abundance,” Drewes said. “So while the current harvest may not be sustainable, it may not be impacting the overall health of the sauger population at the present time.”
Some longtime Lake of the Woods anglers say they’ve seen a decline in the abundance of keeper-size walleyes in recent years, a trend Talmage attributes to two weaker year-classes – fish recruited to the population from a particular year’s hatch – in 2016 and 2017. Populations of smaller walleyes and larger fish in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot remain strong, as do sauger numbers, Talmage said.
Those larger walleyes are the big lake’s spawning stock, Drewes said.
“What we don’t have is a shortage of fish that move into the protected slot,” Drewes said. “Our spawner stock, or spawner stock abundance, on Lake of the Woods is extremely healthy. And so there’s not an issue with enough fish surviving to reproduce and replenish the population.”
No doubt, though, the level of pressure and harvest bears watching, and the DNR will continue to monitor the trends on Lake of the Woods, Talmage said.
“The level of harvest we saw last year and this year, I’m kind of at the point now where I don’t think it’s going to change,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the new normal on Lake of the Woods.
“There’s other factors that play into how angling pressure ultimately affects the fishery, so it is something that we're undoubtedly watching,” Talmage said. “We definitely want to keep track of where our harvest is at and make sure that our population metrics are staying at sustainable levels.”