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Satisfying all year long: Lake Bemidji is able to withstand constant pressure of summer and winter fishing

Each summer, anglers flock to Lake Bemidji and they catch their share of walleyes. Historically, however, Lake Bemidji has been able to withstand the fishing pressure and data from last year’s lake survey indicates the walleye population remains in very good shape. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Lake Bemidji is a body of water that satisfies area anglers all year long.

The lake has a reputation of being generous to the walleye, perch, muskie and northern pike anglers during the open-water months. And, as soon as the surface is covered with ice, the fishermen return.

Fortunately, Lake Bemidji appears to be able to withstand the constant angling pressure. In fact, according to last year’s sampling conducted by the Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries staff, Lake Bemidji is thriving.

“Lake Bemidji continues to click right along,” said Gary Barnard, the Bemidji Area DNR Fisheries Supervisor.

“Its walleye reproduction is consistent and the size and age distribution we sampled during last year’s gill net survey indicates no gaps.

“We averaged 15.3 walleyes per gill net and that is excellent. And we sampled many fish in the 12 to 17-inch range.”

Last year in early August DNR officials sampled Lake Bemidji’s fish populations and during that span they captured 229 walleyes. The smallest fish was 7.17 inches while the largest was 26.77 inches.

The average walleye measured 13.83 inches, a perfect keeper for the average angler.

 The sample included 14 fish over 20 inches, 17 fish between 17 and 20 inches and 138 walleyes between 12 and 17 inches.

“Lake Bemidji consistently has an abundance of mature females (5 years old and older),” Barnard said. “The males usually mature a year earlier and there always are many more males in the population.”

In Lake Bemidji there are many spawning areas for those mature fish to congregate in the spring and having so many available locations is among the reasons for Lake Bemidji’s high natural reproduction potential.

“Lake Bemidji is a very productive system,” Barnard said.”It has deep water structure and spawning habitat within the lake and from the Mississippi and Schoolcraft rivers. There are always options for the spawning walleyes in the spring.”

Because of that natural reproduction, walleyes of all ages and sizes swim in Lake Bemidji.

“We monitor the population structure to make sure the lake is healthy and that there are many new walleyes coming in each year,” Barnard said. “Lake Bemidji gives up many walleyes each year but so far there hasn’t been any overharvest.

“This year we will do a creel survey to make sure of the harvest. At some point, if we believe too many walleyes are being harvested we can put in a special regulation to protect the fish. But so far there is no need to do that.”

 Although Barnard and his staff know that the Lake Bemidji walleye population is in great shape, DNR officials are eager to conduct the creel survey so they can obtain a true handle on the walleye harvest. Because of the extensive winter angling pressure, there is always someone targeting the fish during the open walleye season.

“Many lakes receive a break from the angling pressure during the winter but Lake Bemidji doesn’t,” Barnard said.

Last fall’s sampling also indicated a healthy perch population as the nets averaged 36.73 perch per lift. The smallest perch was 5 inches, the largest was 11.46 inches and the average was 7.22 inches.

“The perch fishery is a big deal on Lake Bemidji,” Barnard said. “The lake has decent catch rates for perch and the fish are of quality size with many of the fish being in the 10 to 12-inch size range. And the perch can be caught during the summer and during the winter.”

Muskie fishing continues to increase in popularity and Lake Bemidji has gained a reputation for being one of the premiere muskie waters in the state.

“Anglers report seeing and catching many muskies each year, and especially in the fall,” Barnard said.”The muskie has been a very nice addition to the fishing scene on Lake Bemidji. There are many hours spent by anglers targeting muskies each year and it is a non-consumptive fishery because the standard is catch and release.”

Lakes that can support muskies also usually can be home to large northern pike and Lake Bemidji has the potential to be a haven for large pike.

“In our nets we sampled 2.1 pike per lift and that is a low abundance,” Barnard said. “But low abundance is really what you want with northern pike because it means you can have good growth rates.”

The sampled pike ranged from 16 inches to 30.59 inches and the average fish was 23.59 inches.

“When you have fish between 24 and 30 inches you have a quality fishery,” Barnard said. “The greatest impact on the quality of the northern pike in Lake Bemidji is harvest by anglers and spearers. There is quite a bit of harvest of the larger northern pike, especially in the winter.”

An abundance of quality baitfish can help a pike and muskie populations thrive and Lake Bemidji is full of tulibees.

“The tulibee is one of the reasons we have good growth rates for northern pike and muskies,” Barnard said. “When we did our survey last year in August there was a tulibee kill going on (because of the warm water) but we still had good catch rates at 2.3 tulibees per net.

“In Lake Bemidji it is the tulibee that drives the growth of the northern pike and the muskie.”

Lake Irving is connected to Lake Bemidji and during the first few weeks of the walleye season Lake Irving can be more productive than its better known neighbor.

“Walleyes spend quite a bit of time, early in the year, in Lake Irving because it is a shallow lake that warms faster and because walleyes that have run up the Schoolcraft and Mississippi rivers to spawn stay there for awhile.

“As the shallow lake basins warm the shiners move in and Lake Irving has many shallow areas.”

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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