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2017 FISHING OPENER: Walleyes doing well on Upper Red Lake

UPPER RED LAKE – Anglers in the Bemidji area have a variety of lakes to pick from and those waters boast a multitude of different fish species that draw the attention of the fishermen.

On Upper Red Lake, however, the walleye is the primary magnet.

“The walleye is the target species for 97 percent of the anglers on Upper Red,” said Bemidji area DNR fisheries supervisor Gary Barnard. “And that is a fairly unique situation.”

Not that long ago, however, walleyes were so scarce in the Red Lake system that state DNR and Red Lake Nation tribal officials were forced to close the lake and its companion water, Lower Red Lake, to any walleye harvest.

A recovery process, which included cooperation among the tribe and the state plus an aggressive walleye stocking program, was implemented and in seven years the walleyes were back.

“Red Lake is doing very well,” Barnard said. “The walleye abundance two and three years ago peaked at about 60 per gill net (during the annual fall lake survey) and now it is at 29 which is still excellent. We couldn’t have sustained the 60 figure because the lake would have run out of forage. At 29 per net we will see better recruitment of walleyes and better growth rates.

“We needed to thin the herd and create space for new fish. In the world of fisheries management, you need to keep replacing fish. You can’t stockpile them,” he added.

When the open-water fishing season opens on May 13 anglers on Upper Red will be able to keep four walleyes and one of them can be over 17 inches. A year ago the season began with a 3-fish walleye limit but this season’s regulation will help officials better manage the fishery by removing some of the excess fish that have reached spawning size.

“Harvest under the 3-fish bag limit resulted in approximately 109,000 pounds for the winter season,” Barnard said. “There is still room within the target harvest range to allow an additional fish this spring. The new harvest plan recommends a more aggressive approach when walleye spawning stock is in surplus, as it currently is. The extra fish allowed by the daily bag limit will increase open-water harvest some, and allowing one fish over 17 inches meets our harvest plan objectives by spreading harvest over a wide range of sizes and removing some of the surplus stock.”

Catching the Upper Red walleyes during the early season usually is not a problem but at times finding a productive spot to anchor can be.

“During the spring bite you can have very fast action on quality fish,” Barnard said. “At that time of the year we hear of 100-catch days.

“But Upper Red Lake is unique in that non-tribal anglers can only fish the east side of the lake and you can put only so many people on the lake at one time,” he continued. “And if the wind is strong from the west, it can be difficult to get on the water.”

A large and shallow body of water, Upper Red doesn’t boast much natural fishing structure so the walleyes, and the anglers, tend to converge along the shoreline break areas.

“The structure that exists is pretty much shoreline,” Barnard said. “The initial breakline starts at 5 to 6 feet and drops into 9 to 10 feet and when you fish Upper Red in the spring you can see the anglers and their boats in a row on that break.

“Sometimes the mature walleyes will be on the top of the break in as shallow as 2 or 3 feet, and sometimes they will be on the bottom of the break. Their position usually is determined by the wind.”

Anglers can’t go wrong with a jig and minnow presentation and many fishermen will anchor and pitch the jig into the shallow water along the break and work it back toward the boat. Some fishermen also employ a slip bobber but most of the time it isn’t necessary.

Trolling, however, can be difficult if not impossible.

“Among the difficulties fishing Upper Red in the spring, especially during the weekend, is the number of boats anchored on the breaks,” Barnard said. “There can be times when you don’t have enough space for trolling or drifting. If you can, sometimes it is better to head to Upper Red during midweek when there is less pressure.”

Walleye anglers also have the chance to hook into a bonus northern pike and some of the pike could be of trophy proportions.

“The 3 percent of anglers not targeting walleyes are going after the pike or the crappies,” Barnard said. “Pike fishing can be tough early in the season but Red Lake can grow big pike and Red Lake does grow big pike.”

Helping the pike reach trophy proportions is a protected slot size of 26 to 44 inches. That regulation results in the release of most large pike but each year fishermen do catch northerns that top the 44-inch mark.

“The low density of pike results in big size potential and our slot regulation is designed for trophy northern pike management,” Barnard added. “There is limited cabbage in the lake but if you can find it, big northern pike will be there.”

Large crappies also roam in the system but the population pales to what it was during the boom years. During last fall’s survey the DNR officials sampled only four crappies in 20 nets, including one that was over 14 inches.

Pat Miller is the former Sports Editor of the Pioneer.