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Fishing opener: Transformation of Red Lake is amazing success story

RED LAKE — It wasn’t that long ago that Red Lake was the poster child of the negative impacts of overfishing.

In the mid 1990s the walleye populations of both Upper and Lower Red Lake crashed to the point where Tribal and Minnesota fisheries officials had to implement a total ban on any walleye fishing.

The hope at that time was that a 10-year moratorium on any walleye harvest, plus an aggressive stocking program would, in time, restore the walleye population in the Red Lake system.

Because of the cooperative effort of the Tribe and the State, Red Lake’s walleye fishery made positive strides from the outset and seven years after the stocking phase of the operation began walleyes were prospering on Upper and Lower Red Lake and the system was open to walleye fishing.

“It’s an amazing story,” said Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries Large Lake Specialist Tony Kennedy. “It took four or five years for the stocked fish to mature and once that occurred a self-sustaining spawning stock was established and Red Lake had recovered.

“In 2011 Red Lake produced the strongest year class of walleyes that we had ever seen so the future of the fishery is bright,” Kennedy continued. “There also is a strong 2009 year class of fish that is about 17 inches and those fish are driving the strong catch rates that we are seeing now.”

Few lakes in Minnesota are scrutinized as thoroughly as Red Lake and last year’s gillnet study was 48.6 per net, just off the record set in 2012. Walleyes from 11 different age classes ranging from 1 year to 14 years were sampled and approximately two-thirds of the walleyes ranged from 2 years old to 4 years of age (the 2009 and 2011 year classes).

More than a third of the fish measured between 14 and 17 inches and were a perfect size for the frying pan.

On opening day Red Lake will be governed by a special regulation that protects walleyes between 17 and 26 inches. On June 14 the protected slot will be reduced to fish between 20 and 26 inches.

During the past winter Red Lake anglers set a record in terms of pounds harvested, according to results of the creel survey.

“Fishermen kept 119,00 pounds of walleyes during the winter of 2013-14 and that was 25,000 pounds more than the previous winter,” Kennedy said, adding that the increase was by design.

“On Red Lake we have an annual target harvest range and in 2011 and 2012 we didn’t reach that harvest because fishing pressure declined. In the winter of 2013 and 2014 we relaxed the slot to fish between 20 and 26 inches and angler trips and angler harvest went up.”

DNR officials will continue to monitor every aspect of Red Lake and if there are any indications that the walleye fishery is changing, the necessary adjustments will be made.

“We manage Red Lake with a short leash,” Kennedy said. “We can adjust the harvest as necessary by changing the slot limit and we will know if that is something that should be done by our creel surveys and sharing our data with the Band.”

Kennedy invites every angler to head to Upper Red Lake because the good times for that fishery are right now and this season could provide one of the better opening weekends in recent years.

“This is a great time to fish Upper Red for walleyes,” Kennedy said, “and late ice-out years are great years to fish the lake, especially early in the season.

“Not only should you catch many walleyes this year there also should be many fish to keep if you get away from the tributary mouths.”

In the Red Lake system some walleyes are usually spawning early in the season and those larger spawners head to the tributary mouths. The majority of the “eating-sized” fish are in the main lake and those are the walleyes anglers who want to catch fish for the pan should target.

“The tributaries attract the larger walleyes in the spring and also attract the crowds of fishermen,” Kennedy said. “If you get away from the crowds and work the shoreline breaks of the main lake you will catch the keepers early in the season. And you also will avoid all of the crowds.”

Northern Pike Fishery

Red Lake also has become known as a trophy northern pike lake and if you want to tangle with a 45-inch pike, Red Lake is still the place to go.

“We sampled northern pike up to 45 inches last year but I think we might have passed the peak years of the lake having 40-inch fish,” Kennedy said. “Last winter the big pike we heard about were about 38 to 39 inches.”

The number of pike in the fishery is relatively low and that is a plus for a lake that is managed for trophy pike. A special regulation protecting pike between 26 and 44 inches also is in place.

“Red Lake is managed as a trophy pike fishery and there are some big northern pike in the system,” Kennedy said. “But large pike don’t live forever and I think it is fair to say that there aren’t as many 40-inch pike in the lake now as there used to be.

“But if I am looking to catch a trophy pike in an area lake, I still would go to Red Lake.”

A decade ago anglers were flocking to Red Lake seeking trophy crappies and the lake did not disappoint. When the walleye population crashed the door was open for some species to fill the void and, fortunately, the crappies became the predominant fish in the system.

The vast majority of those crappies are no longer in the system but once in awhile an angler will hook into a trophy crappie.

“”There have always been crappies in Red Lake and there always will be,” Kennedy said. “But the big boom of the early 2000s is over and now the crappies are just a bonus fish. A few smaller crappies (10 to 11 inches) are showing up in our test nets and there are a few of the crappies from the boom years still in Red Lake. Those fish are 19 years old now but they aren’t much larger now than they were when the crappies dominated the lake.”

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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