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Leech Lake hopes to keep walleye fishery strong

Dick Sternberg of the Leech Lake Fishing Task Force tells a Walker audience at a community gathering Monday night that the task force is recommending the continued stocking in Leech Lake of 7.5 million walleye fry to maintain the lake's recovery as a premier walleye fishery. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

WALKER -- Leech Lake's walleye fishing continues to improve, and community leaders want it to stay that way by stocking 7.5 million walleye fry annually.

"We feel that at least 7.5 million fry stocked a year will quantify reproduction" of naturally occurring walleye, Dick Sternberg, a fish biologist, said during a community forum in Walker on Monday night.

"We'd like to see the stocking continue until it's conclusively proved that natural reproduction alone can maintain a healthy walleye population," Sternberg said.

Since stocking efforts began in 2005 -- with fry marked -- the latest figures show that 50.1 percent of walleyes sampled are from stocking, he said. "We would like to see that natural reproduction level up a lot higher, possibly around the 80 percent mark."

The Leech Lake Fishing Task Force has spearheaded efforts to bring back a walleye population that started a deep decline in 2000. Sternberg said his studies show that cormorants began the downward cycle by consuming too many yellow perch and small walleyes. With those predators removed, rusty crayfish proliferated.

The crayfish consumed too many walleye and perch eggs, making it impossible for the fish to adequately reproduce, he said. The state Department of Natural Resources, however, aren't convinced of that, he added.

"With rusty crayfish consuming too many walleye eggs, the obvious solution was to stock walleye fry, which are not vulnerable to crayfish predation," Sternberg said.

The Leech Lake Fishing Task Force presented its report to about 350 community members during Monday night's "On Eagle's Wings" celebration at the Walker Community Center. They were also asked to fill out a survey of what to do next.

Stocking in Leech Lake, under a DNR five-year plan, had 7.5 million fry in 2005, 22.1 million fry in 2006, 7.6 million fry in 2007, 22 million fry in 2008 and 22 million this year.

It means about 81 million fry have been stocked in Leech Lake since 2005, despite that the DNR's original five-year plan called for 15 million.

A joint effort with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to control cormorant has seen higher survival rates for young walleyes and perch, Sternberg said. "Reduced crayfish numbers have led to an improvement in weed growth, further improving walleye survival rate."

With the DNR doing another five-year plan in 2010, the Leech Lake Task Force is also recommending:

- Increasing the number of sampling stations to get better numbers on year-class strength,

- Continued cormorant control. Nearly 9,500 birds have been removed since 2005, 2,600 alone in 2008. The task force would like to see no more than 500 nesting pairs of cormorants, yielding about 2,000 birds.

- Revisiting the slot limit of 18 to 26 inches, meaning anglers can keep walleyes under 18 inches and over 26 inches.

- Continued control of rusty crayfish. "The rusty crayfish still pose a threat to the Leech Lake fishery, and future management plans should include monitoring of crayfish populations by trapping at sampling stations throughout the lake," Sternberg said.

To help make further recommendations to the DNR, the survey asked about stocking the lake at a recommended 1,000 fry per acre, increasing sampling sites, suggestions for slot limit and bag limit (currently four fish), level of cormorant control, thoughts on fishing tournaments, education on invasive species and if the DNR should do an intensive study into why natural reproduction is lagging.