Red Lake walleyes are biting, but winter harvest is behind the norm

Walleyes are biting on Upper Red Lake this winter, but deep snow and other conditions have kept so many anglers away that the overall harvest is trending sharply lower than last year's modest catch.

That's the ice fishing summary provided this week by large lake specialist Tony Kennedy at the state Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. Further north, on the American side of Lake of the Woods, DNR officials in Baudette are changing how they survey for angler success and don't have early ice season results. But preliminary numbers from last year's entire ice season show a heavy downturn in sauger and walleye catches, DNR large lake specialist Brett Nelson said this week.

On Red, the winter walleye catch generally peaks in December and it's a lake that yields a bigger harvest in winter than in the spring and summer. According to preliminary survey results from December 2022, Upper Red Lake anglers caught and kept 51,000 pounds of walleyes. That was a 47% drop from the four-year average for December of 97,000 pounds.

The problem? Far fewer anglers, Kennedy said.

Visitors were scarce during the first weekend of December following an internationally publicized ice fracture Nov. 28 that separated 200 anglers from shore. After the open water refroze, Minnesota was hit by back-to-back December storms that featured slush, bitter cold and drifting snow.

"It took a while for plow trucks to get stuff opened up,'' Kennedy said.

The upshot was an estimated 10,000 fewer people on the ice last month than usual, Kennedy said. In January, mobility continues to be restricted. Most anglers who show up are confined to fishing close to the plowed ice roads, he said. Anglers using snowmobiles are the exception.

A year ago, the full ice fishing season on Upper Red resulted in a harvest of 134,000 pounds of walleyes. For one of the biggest ice fishing destinations in Minnesota, the catch was considered modest.

"This year we might not even hit 100,000 pounds,'' Kennedy said.

If the DNR knew Red Lake walleye fishing would be hampered in December and January, it probably would not have lowered the winter bag limit from four walleyes to three (with only one longer than 17 inches). But as a result, Kennedy said, walleye abundance will undoubtedly be strong for boaters come summer.

"If I had a crystal ball, I would not have lowered the limit,'' Kennedy said. "But if you get too aggressive in winter (by liberalizing the bag limit) you can get pinched in the summer.''

The open-water bag limit for 2023 will be announced in April after the DNR consults with its citizen advisory committee and with Red Lake Nation. The co-management plan between DNR and the tribe centers on keeping an optimal level of spawners in the lake.

"There's lots of fish in the lake with good size distribution,'' Kennedy said. "We won't be short, that's for sure.''

In Baudette, Nelson said the expansion of ice roads on Lake of the Woods and increases in overnight stays by people visiting the lake in their own wheelhouses contributed to a change in how the agency surveys anglers.

Gone are the days when a single creel clerk would rove the ice along the south shore to interview anglers while they were still fishing. Instead, two creel clerks are now assigned to survey anglers at various locations when their fishing is completed. They'll also count vehicles leaving the ice.

The switch puts Lake of the Woods on even footing with Red Lake and other large ice fishing lakes for lake-to-lake comparisons. But Nelson said it will be difficult, initially, to make year-to-year direct comparisons about fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods.

"We took this approach to better evaluate the harvest,'' Nelson said.

Nelson said the DNR's approximate estimate of walleye and sauger harvested during last year's ice season stands at 160,000 pounds of walleyes and 250,000 pounds of saugers. Those overall catches were each about 100,000 pounds lighter than the six-year norm, Nelson said.

Factors could have included weak reproduction in the lake for walleye classes of 2017, 2019 and 2020. But even in winters of strong fish abundance, Nelson said, walleye harvest can be highly variable.