The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is beefing up this winter’s creel survey on Lake of the Woods with the addition of a second clerk who will set up at major access points along the lake to interview anglers coming off the ice.

Similar to how the DNR conducts winter creel surveys on Upper Red Lake, the addition of a clerk who will work from a mobile “creel shack” at major access points will provide a better picture of what anglers are actually harvesting, said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minnesota.

The “creel shack” is a 5x8-foot fish house mounted on a trailer that will be hauled to a different access every day, he said. A second clerk will continue to work on the ice counting fish houses and conducting occupancy checks as in previous surveys, but will go back to a resort and wait for the tracked vehicles to return with customers and their catches and tally those fish at the end of the day, Talmage said.

“It’s going to afford us some really cool stuff in the sense of we’re going to have complete trip data,” he said. “Right now, we make a lot of assumptions about catch rates. We take a catch rate at a particular time of the day and apply that throughout the day, historically.

“With this new way, we’re going to actually know what they caught at the end of the day, so we reduce a lot of our bias (in survey results), and it will give us a better picture.”

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Better, more accurate information also will help fisheries managers determine if regulation changes might be needed, Talmage said.

“When it comes to modeling regulations, it’s going to be a much better tool for us,” he said. “If we ever have to make adjustments to the regulations, for example, we’ll be able to see what the impact of any regulation would have on the fishery currently, as far as how people are harvesting fish.”

Rising pressure

The expanded survey format comes at a time of ever-growing winter fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods. Based on creel survey estimates, anglers logged 2.8 million and 2.7 million hours of ice fishing pressure, respectively, during the winters of 2020 and 2021 on Lake of the Woods.

Crowds once again are converging on the big lake this winter as safe ice begins to form.

As the Herald reported in May, anglers last 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, he said.

A mixed bag of walleyes, saugers and perch from Lake of the Woods. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
A mixed bag of walleyes, saugers and perch from Lake of the Woods. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

Walleye harvest in recent years has averaged about 520,000 pounds annually – just below target, based on DNR estimates – while the six-year average for saugers is about 430,000 pounds annually, he said.

The bulk of the sauger harvest occurs during the winter.

“The pressure has been increasing on the winter fishery for the last 20 years,” Talmage said. “We saw it go from under a million (hours) to a million, and now we’ve crept up to almost 3 million angler-hours these past couple of winters.”

The recent pressure increase hasn’t resulted in a corresponding hike in harvest, he said.

“There's a certain number of harvestable fish out there in any given year. And when you start adding more and more pressure to it, you know there's not more and more fish out there so the fish get split up between more people,” Talmage said. “That’s what’s really happening. The pie is only so big.”

Lake of the Woods notes

  • Fisheries crews have yet to find an adult zebra mussel on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods, despite the discovery of larval zebra mussels, called veligers, in water samples collected from the south shore of the lake in 2019. “We’ve been really monitoring their abundance,” Talmage said. “In 2020, (veligers) were kind of all over the place, but this year, there were very limited quantities of them anywhere in our samples, and there were only a couple of samples that we even captured them.” The presence of veligers suggests there has to be adults somewhere, “but so far, we’re not seeing that manifesting into something more serious,” Talmage said.

  • Bait harvesters this fall reported a strong run of emerald shiners up the Rainy River, a phenomenon that usually makes for good ice fishing in the weeks after freeze-up, Talmage says. So far, that seems to be the case, both on the lake and on the Rainy River, where locals traditionally do well through the ice during low-light hours. “You get out there that last couple of hours of the day, and you can have some pretty good luck,” Talmage said.

  • The DNR will conduct summer creel surveys on Lake of the Woods in both 2022 and 2023 after scrapping plans for a summer survey in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also planned is a fall creel survey on the Rainy River, Talmage said.

  • DNR crews have been seeing more black crappies while conducting their annual fall fisheries assessment on Lake of the Woods, but Talmage speculates it’s only the occasional school passing through and getting caught in the nets. “I wouldn’t say that we have some population level change or increase coming on Lake of the Woods,” he said.