Fishing gets better and better
RED LAKE — The recovery of the walleyes on Upper Red Lake has been a true success story and the news just keeps getting better and better.
Last fall Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries officials surveyed Upper Red and were impressed by what the found.
“Our gill net catches were 60.8 per lift and that is a record high,” said Bemidji Area DNR Large Lake Specialist Tony Kennedy. “Much of the record abundance is driven by the exceptional 2009 year class. Those fish currently average 15 inches and are nicely situated under the protected slot of 17 to 26 inches that will be in place for the opener.”
On June 15 the slot will be relaxed to protect fish from 20 to 26 inches.
“We do a sliding slot to protect the spawners early in the season when the catch rates are higher,” Kennedy said.
The walleyes of the 2009 year class dominate the landscape in Upper Red but the population also includes significant contributions from every year class since natural reproduction took over in 2006.
DNR officials have not stocked Upper Red since 2005, the final year of the lake’s recovery program following the walleye crash in the late 1990s.
Last year’s survey confirmed that the 2009 class did very well in Upper Red but looking back, DNR officials were concerned that the year class would struggle.
“It was a spring with average ice-out but there was high water and it was a cold summer,” Kennedy recalled. “We were concerned because the fish were produced in huge numbers and when you have that density sometimes they don’t grow very fast.
“During the next winter the fish were smaller than average but they made it through and now have caught up in size,” Kennedy added.
Because of the success of a variety of year classes, Kennedy and his colleagues believe that Upper Red has reached the point where a poor walleye year class, should it occur, would not be a concern.
“There are so many walleyes in the system now that the lake can compensate for a poor year class,” Kennedy said.
“When we initially re-stocked Red Lake (in the early 2000s) we were more successful than we expected. There were so many walleyes that some of them grew fast and died young. But others displayed slower growth, survived and are still there,” Kennedy said.
The survivors of the early stocking programs are now over 20 inches long and are among the main spawners in the system.
“There are many females five to 13 years old and that’s a great thing,” Kennedy said. “There is tremendous value in having spawning year classes representing so many year classes.”
If the ice is off Upper Red Lake by opening day the fishermen could experience tremendous action.
“In two of the last three seasons we had record or near-record early ice-outs and the bite suffered,” Kennedy said. “But this year, because of the late spring, I expect a very good early bite on Upper Red. And things are shaping up to have the good bite persist through June.”
Upper Red Lake is also known as a trophy northern pike fishery and DNR officials have established special regulations to protect those fish.
Since 2011 all northern pike 26 to 44 inches must be released and one fish over 44 inches is allowed in possession.
“Typically, when we sample the northern pike population on Upper Red with our non-lethal trap nets, seven to 10 percent of the females we sample are 40 inches are longer,” Kennedy said. “Last year we netted two northern pike that were 45.75 inches. Fish of those sizes are what makes Upper Red such a great pike lake.”
A remnant population of crappies also can be found in Upper Red but the density is well below where it was a decade ago.
“We sample a handful of crappies each year,” Kennedy said, “and the fish are from three different age classes. We are hearing reports of people catching crappies, usually between eight and 10 inches, but the crappie abundance is nowhere near what it used to be.”
Kennedy also said that winter anglers discovered a bonus fishery in the perch.
“There were pretty decent numbers of nine to 11-inch perch caught last winter,” he said. “And that was a nice surprise for the winter fishermen.”