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DNR fisheries supervisor talks changing lakes in Alexandria area ahead of fishing opener

Alex Letvin says many lakes in his work area are going through a transition with clearing waters and expanded vegetation. It's a change that naturally benefits fish species like northern pike and largemouth bass. What might that look like for walleye on some of these waters going forward?

Alex Letvin
Alex Letvin, a Michigan native who spent eight years working in fisheries management in California after his education at the University of Michigan and South Dakota State University, took over as the Glenwood DNR fisheries manager in the fall of 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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GLENWOOD, Minn. — Alex Letvin is a Michigan native who knew he wanted to get back to working in the Midwest after a career in fisheries management took him to California for eight years.

Letvin, now 38-years-old, got an environmental science degree with a specialization in fisheries from the University of Michigan before going to South Dakota State University to earn a fisheries science master's degree.

He was part of a team in California that worked on a project called the Ocean Salmon Project.

“We were responsible for monitoring and managing the ocean’s fishery off the coast of California, which was commercial and recreational,” Letvin said. “The commercial fishery actually occupied most of our time because they were bringing in so many more fish than the sport fishery. I really got a taste for fisheries management there and the whole politics of it all. Managing a fishery, as much as we would like it to be strictly about the science, really there’s a lot of socioeconomic and political components of it that come into play.

“Being out there gave me a really good experience of learning the playing field of fisheries management and being involved in some pretty high stakes, really economically important fisheries to the state of California.”

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That experience prepared Letvin to accept a job as the Glenwood Area Fisheries Supervisor for the Minnesota DNR, a job he started last fall. Former Glenwood fisheries supervisor Dean Beck retired in August of 2020.

Letvin sat down for an interview with the Echo Press ahead of the May 14 Minnesota fishing opener to discuss a wide range of topics centered around lakes in his work area within Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens and portions of Todd counties. The conversation centered a lot on how many of the lakes are going through a transition due to clearer waters and changing habitat.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview in podcast form by going to https://www.echopress.com/echo-press-minute , or by downloading the episode on the Echo Press Minute Podcast through Spotify , Apple Music , Google Podcasts , and Audible .

Northern pike
A northern pike is handled by the Glenwood DNR fisheries staff during sampling on an Alexandria area lake. Northerns are plentiful and often considered overpopulated in many of the lakes within the Glenwood DNR's work area.
Contributed photo

Q: In your time in Glenwood now and as you have looked at the lakes you are overseeing, what stands out to you at a broad level?

Alex Letvin: (The lakes) are changing. They’re going through a transition process. That’s not something specific to the Glenwood area. It’s happening across Minnesota and the upper Midwest, but we really are noticing it here. Some people are welcoming those changes, and other people are kind of dreading them.

The fishing is still great. It’s just where you fish on the lakes might be changing. What you’re fishing for might be changing. Lakes that have historically in this area been ‘walleye factories,’ some of them just appear to be losing their ability to support walleye and are really becoming clearer, more vegetated, more dominated by bass and whatnot.

Pike overabundance is really becoming a problem in a lot of our lakes and how we’re going to manage that. Lakes are becoming warmer and clearer in general, more dominated by vegetation.

Q: Are these changes due predominantly to zebra mussels being firmly established in many of these lakes, or are there other factors?

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Letvin: Definitely zebra mussels have a lot to do with it, but climate change is definitely playing a role too, especially in terms of the lakes getting warmer. I know this past winter wasn't really a very good example of that, but climate change is playing a role there as well. More sunlight is allowing more vegetation to grow, and the zebra mussels play a pretty big role in that. It's kind of a combined affect from both of them.

Zebra mussels are clearing up the water, but then at the same time we're having hotter, warmer weather that's making the water warmer, allowing more vegetation to grow.

Q: You see continued angler interest in targeting species like bass and muskie, but it’s hard to imagine a day in Minnesota when walleye is not king in this state. How would you assess your work area right now as a walleye fishery?

Walley
A nice walleye is put back into the water after measurements were taken during survey work on an area lake by the Glenwood Area DNR fisheries staff. Many good walleye fisheries exist for anglers in the Alexandria area, but there is concern among DNR fisheries staff in Glenwood about what clearer, more vegetated waters in the west-central Minnesota area that more naturally benefit northern pike and bass might mean for walleye on some of these waters in the future.
Contributed photo

Letvin: There’s still lots of opportunity to catch walleye. Some lakes that have historically been stronger walleye fisheries maybe aren’t anymore, but there’s so many lakes here and they’re so diverse that there’s plenty of opportunities to fish for walleye. There’s still some really excellent walleye fishing. We have a hatchery here. The only thing we raise at this hatchery is walleye. It is our priority management species on most lakes.

With the expansion of zebra mussels, that’s kind of the big thing that we believe has been essentially hurting the walleye populations. They’ve been clearing up the water. They’ve been reducing the amount of chlorophyll in the water. Chlorophyll is kind of the basis of the food chain in these lakes. Zooplankton feed on the chlorophyll, which is essentially phytoplankton. If you lose that food source at the base of the food web, you have this effect that goes throughout the food web that you can’t necessarily support the fisheries you used to. With the expansion of zebra mussels, we have been seeing a decline in some of these lakes.

It’s really too early to say this, but Chris Uphoff, one of the specialists who works in our office, he’s been looking at some data, and it looks like we might be getting over the hump in that we’re kind of getting passed the initial phase of zebra mussel invasion. It does seem like chlorophyll levels are starting to increase on some of these lakes. With the increased chlorophyll, we have been seeing some increases in juvenile walleye abundances. We’re hoping we’re actually reaching a turning point, and it has been shown that lakes that get invaded by zebra mussels, for the first 7-10 years or so, the water clarity goes up and up and the zebra mussels expand, expand, expand. And at a certain point, it seems like they reach a carrying capacity and their numbers start to decrease.

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Q: With your standard lake surveys, I know nets are placed in the same locations within a lake when they are sampled so you can see trends in fish populations over many years. With the changes to many of the lakes — clearer water maybe leading to fish avoiding nets better, changing habitats potentially driving fish deeper — do you worry you are not getting an accurate picture of the populations due to some of those changes?

Letvin: That’s a fair question. I would say that if we didn’t trap fish at varying depths, I’d be more worried about it. In our standard lake surveys, we have two kinds of nets that we use. Trap nets which are set in shallower water, but they can go out pretty deep. Then we also set gill nets in deeper water too. If fish are moving deeper, we may see fewer of them in the trap nets, but then we’d be seeing more of them in the gill nets.

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And our nets, we do set them in the same locations every year, but they’re set all around the lakes. One location might be a net that is in an area that historically did not see a lot of fish, but we still would set the net there every year. Now if fish are moving to different parts of the basin, maybe those nets are actually getting more fish in them now. We space the nets out across the basin, so I feel like spatially we are covering a pretty representative part of the basin. I don’t really believe that fish are going so deep that they’re evading our nets completely. It is a valid concern, but I do still feel our methods are accurately sampling the fish populations.

Northern pike
A northern pike goes back into the water during sampling done by the Glenwood DNR fisheries staff on an area lake.
Contributed photo

Q: A lot of the changes to many of these lakes tend to benefit fish like northern pike and bass that can thrive in more vegetated systems. What kind of a challenge does that present to you as a fisheries manager knowing that walleye often drives angler interest in Minnesota?

Letvin: That’s one of our greatest challenges. Generally speaking, people think clearer, more vegetated lakes, that’s what fish want. By and large, that’s true. But unfortunately, there is one species of fish that tends to not benefit quite so much. It’s not that (walleye) don’t benefit from clear, vegetated waters. It’s the fact that these other species benefit much more from it and then outcompete them. The truth is, the increased sunlight penetrating the water can be harmful to walleye because their eyes are so sensitive to light.

It’s hard because those conditions are really beneficial to many species, but then the one species that happens to be the state fish and hands down the most popular sport fish in the state seems to be one of the few species that is not necessarily benefiting from these changes. Mother Nature is kind of fighting against us in a lot of regards.

I’ll be honest, sometimes we have to adapt. This resistance approach and trying to force walleye into a lake that just won’t support walleye is kind of a thing of the past. We can stock millions and millions of walleye into a lake. If that lake just doesn’t take and stocking is not effective, it’s not naturally beneficial to walleye, then it’s kind of a waste of tax-payer money to be doing that.

The lakes around here are changing, and we are going to try everything we can to sustain walleye fishing in our area. But I do think we have to accept the reality that these changes are imminent and some lakes are just not going to continue to support strong walleye populations in the future. Preparing the public for that and giving them realistic expectations can be the most challenging part of it all.

Perch
A big perch is measured by the Glenwood DNR fisheries staff during sampling on an area lake.
Contributed photo

Q: Yellow perch is a popular prey species for fish like bass, pike and walleye. How are bait fish populations doing across your work area?

Letvin: There are some concerns. Yellow perch are a hugely important prey item to many fish species, walleye being one of them.

Perch populations have definitely been on the decline, generally speaking. We do have healthy perch populations in many of our lakes around here, but across really Minnesota as a whole, perch populations tend to be declining, which is another problem. Walleye tend to favor perch over some other prey fish like bluegill. Largemouth bass will more readily eat a bluegill than a walleye will. There are definitely issues there too. It’s part of the problem. There are still lots of prey fish in these lakes even if yellow perch are not necessarily at their highest levels, but it’s definitely part of the problem. It’s part of this transition. It’s the whole food chain that’s being affected.

Crappie
A big crappie is released back into the water after sampling by the Glenwood Area DNR staff on an area lake. Many lakes within the Alexandria area feature a good size structure and great populations of both crappie and bluegills.
Contributed photo

Q: What we do have in this area is a great opportunity to target multiple fish species. How would you assess these lakes as a panfish fishery right now?

Letvin: In terms of sunfish and crappie, this is a great area.

We have lakes that just have massive amounts of sunfish and crappie in them. Lakes with really large sunfish and crappie in them. We’re really making a concerted effort to try to improve the quality of the panfishing, particularly with sunfish in our area. We’ve really taken it upon ourselves in the Glenwood area to try to get as many lakes in the ( Quality Bluegill Initiative Program ) as we can. Starting this year, we have 12 new lakes in our area that now have reduced sunfish limits. These changes are highly supported by the public. It does feel like most people don’t feel the need to keep 20 bluegills, and would rather be catching larger ones.

We already have really strong panfishing in this area, but I think with these additional steps we’re taking, it’s only going to get better. If you’re looking for panfish, this is definitely a great area. We’ve got both numbers and size.

LMB_Tub.jpg
A big largemouth bass is placed into a tub during sampling by the Glenwood DNR fisheries staff. Many of the lakes in the Alexandria area have large numbers of bass, along with plenty of big fish for anglers to go after.
Contributed photo

Q: I continue to hear from anglers in recent years that bass fishing is fantastic on so many of these lakes. What do you think of the area as a bass fishery?

Letvin: We do have some lakes that have smallmouth in them, but the lakes in our area are more conducive to largemouth bass.

The largemouth bass fishing has definitely been blowing up in recent years. It seems like it keeps getting better and better. Bass definitely benefit from clear water. Zebra mussels have gone a long way in terms of clearing up water. Vegetation is starting to expand in these basins, and bass, panfish, pike, all those fish really benefit from highly vegetated clear lakes. It’s hard to think that it’s not primarily due to these changes that we’re seeing in why bass populations are expanding. We don’t stock bass in any of our lakes…for the most part, we’re not doing anything extraordinary in our area to increase bass numbers. It’s just happening naturally.

Bluegill
A big bluegill is handled during sampling on an area lake done by the Glenwood Area fisheries department.
Contributed photo

Q: As fisheries supervisor, what is your focus in terms of what you would like to see get done in the next year or two within your work area?

Letvin: I would like to get a little smarter with our walleye stocking. I kind of want to get away from the culture of just stocking as many fish as you can and if that’s not working, putting more in there. I’d like to have honest conversations with stakeholders about what’s working and what isn’t and what we should be focusing on to get the best bang for our buck. We do produce a lot of walleye here at our hatchery. I think it could go further if we really prioritize the way we’re stocking and how much we’re stocking into certain lakes.

On top of that, I do think a big problem in our area is how much of the watershed has been drained. How channelized and ditched the watershed is. How many barriers there are to fish movement. There used to be connections between all these different waters in this area and fish could move freely between them. The amount of draining on our landscape is quite staggering, and I’m not necessarily thinking at this point we’re going to be able to reverse that. But I would like to look at our current landscape and look at ways to improve fish passage between basins. Because the more interconnected these populations are, the healthier our fish communities are going to be, the more resilient to changes they’re going to be if they can move in and out of systems dependent on environmental conditions.

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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