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Once controversial slot limits have proven effective on some lakes in increasing anglers' catch rates and increasing the number of larger walleyes in a population. Forum Communications Co. File Photo

Anglers adjust to slot limits and better catches

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DULUTH -- "Slot limit" used to be a dirty word. Or two words.

Nobody was keen on the idea of putting back walleyes that otherwise might have wound up in a frying pan.

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Deer River fishing guide Jeff Sundin remembers speaking up for a slot limit that was proposed for Lake Winnibigoshish in the late 1990s.

"I was a believer in the first place," Sundin said. "I stumped for it. I lost some friends over it initially. Some have come back around. Some haven't."

Slot limits on northern Minnesota's main walleye lakes have come of age now. The more restrictive limits require anglers to immediately release walleyes in a specific size range, perhaps 17 to 26 inches or 17 to 28 inches.

The first walleye slot limit was established on Rainy Lake in 1994. Mille Lacs went to a slot in 1999. Big Winnie's slot took effect in 2000. Leech Lake's was implemented in 2005.

When used in conjunction with other management tools, slot limits have proven effective in increasing anglers' catch rates and increasing the number of larger walleyes in a population.

"It gave us a more quality fishery and initially it preserved more spawning fish," said Barry Woods, a guide on Rainy Lake, about that lake's slot limit.

It's almost hard to remember that in the mid-1990s, when the slot was established on Rainy, catch-and-release fishing for walleyes was still a new concept. Now anglers are accustomed to measuring the fish they catch and throwing some back. Resorts have adapted to the change and now draw fishing clients who are less concerned about taking home a pile of frozen fillets.

"There's been an evolution," said Tim Goeman, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids. "It's almost a prestigious thing to have a walleye slot limit on your lake."

Al Maas has been guiding anglers, mostly on Leech Lake, for 41 years now.

"We have an 18- to 26-inch slot, and you're allowed one over 26," Maas said. "With a four-fish limit. People are perfectly happy with that."

The regular statewide walleye limit is six fish, but four-fish limits are in place along with the slots on Leech, Rainy and Mille Lacs.

"If we look back, over the years I've guided, it used to be that if you didn't limit out, you had a bad day," Maas said. "Those days are gone."

Anglers still hope to catch enough walleyes for a shore lunch or a meal, but almost nobody is taking pictures of big stringers of fish anymore.

Still, one segment of anglers remains bitter about slot limits, Sundin said.

"Most of the guys who were opposed to them are still opposed to them, even though they can be shown evidence that it has been better for their lakes than they think," he said.

But young anglers, especially, embrace slots, Sundin said.

"It doesn't represent anything that has been taken away from them," he said.

The slot limit on Lake Winnibigoshish came up for review last fall. Although DNR officials offered to relax the Winnie slot to 18 to 26 inches from the current 17 to 26 inches, public testimony favored leaving the slot at 17 to 26 inches.

"I never dreamed people would want that," Goeman said, "but for the last 10-year period, fishing has been better than ever on Winnie, and people can catch fish to eat."

Creel surveys show anglers are still keeping as many walleyes per hour as they did before the slot limit, said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids. But they're catching a lot more walleyes.

Sundin agrees.

"We're keeping the same number of fish we used to keep, but the catch rate has improved," he said. "It isn't that we're keeping smaller fish. It's that we're not keeping that odd big one."

Why not more?

Kavanaugh said he gets a good number of calls from people who would like to see slot limits placed on their lakes. But the regulation isn't right for every lake, DNR officials say.

It isn't right on lakes where stocking is used to support the walleye population, such as Pokegama Lake near Grand Rapids.

"The best return to the angler is when those fish reach a catchable and keepable size, and people are keeping them," Goeman said.

When slot limits are established, they are made as experimental regulations and reviewed after 10 years. Sometimes, the regulations need tweaking.

Rainy Lake's slot was expanded after several years to protect more fish because biologists had thought too many fish were leaving the system.

The slot on Mille Lacs lake is watched closely each summer, and it sometimes is relaxed, if overall harvest is low, to allow anglers to keep more fish.

Maas says lots of Leech Lake anglers would like to see Leech Lake's slot limit replaced by a four-walleye limit with just one over 20 inches, similar to the statewide regulation that allows six walleyes with one over 20.

Woods has some concerns that Rainy Lake may have too many larger walleyes in its population now. He hopes the DNR will be flexible enough to revise the slot limit if necessary.

The DNR's Goeman says that's one thing that biologists try to be aware of with a slot limit.

"There's some potential for stockpiling older, bigger fish," Goeman said. "That can suppress recruitment of young fish coming in."

Imposing a slot limit on a lake is one thing. Getting anglers to abide by them is another thing.

Most anglers will play by the rules -- once they know them.

"It takes a couple of years for a slot limit to catch on and people to understand it's in place," the DNR's Goeman said. "For about the first two years after a slot limit is put in place, we have pretty significant noncompliance, about 20 to 30 percent."

Even a small amount of noncompliance can be significant, he said.

"We've determined that if there's 10 percent noncompliance with any length-based regulation, it's the same as that regulation not being there," Goeman said.

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