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Creel survey documents strong winter season on Upper Red Lake

Walleyes such as this respectable fish Jonny Petrowske of Waskish, Minn., landed in December 2011 were abundant this winter on Upper Red Lake. A relaxed slot limit and good fishing resulted in the highest wintertime walleye harvest since fishing on Upper Red resumed in 2006, a Minnesota DNR creel survey shows. Forum News Service File Photo

Buoyed by good fishing and an expanded range of “keeper”-size fish, anglers kept more than 93,000 pounds of walleyes this winter on the Minnesota portion of Upper Red Lake.

According to results from a winter creel survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the estimated walleye take of 93,007 pounds was more than double the catch from the previous winter, when anglers kept 44,862 pounds of walleyes.

The creel survey began in early December and wrapped up with the close of Minnesota’s inland waters walleye season Feb. 28.

This winter, for the first time since walleye fishing on Upper Red resumed in 2006, the DNR allowed wintertime anglers to keep walleyes less than 20 inches, along with one longer than 26 inches, as part of their four-fish limit. Previously, ice fishing regulations on Upper Red required anglers to release walleyes from 17 inches to 26 inches, with one longer than 26 inches allowed, as part of their four-fish limit.

Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said the decision to relax the winter slot limit on Upper Red was made in response to a walleye harvest that lagged below state quotas the past couple of years.

Strong walleye populations documented during annual test-netting surveys also justified the change, Barnard said, and the DNR last fall passed an “emergency rule” to loosen the slot limit.

The DNR still requires anglers on Upper Red to release walleyes from 17 inches to 26 inches from the May fishing opener through mid-June. But since 2009, the DNR has allowed anglers to keep walleyes up to 20 inches, with one longer than 26 inches, from mid-June through the remainder of the open-water season.

The DNR manages walleyes in Minnesota’s portion of Upper Red Lake with an annual “safe harvest range” of 84,000 to 168,000 pounds. Between the summer and winter seasons, anglers in 2011 kept an estimated 79,167 pounds of walleyes, DNR stats show, and 72,107 pounds in 2012.

This winter’s catch on Upper Red exceeded the previous high from 2007 by more 23,000 pounds, but Barnard said the harvest was right about where the DNR projected it would be. He said anglers likely will be able to keep walleyes up to 20 inches next winter, as well.

“The emergency rule we have in place has that same regulation in place for next winter,” Barnard said. “It would take an extremely unusual open-water harvest or an unexpected drastic decline in next fall’s (population) assessment, for that to change.”

As expected, this past winter’s fast start to ice fishing on Upper Red tapered off as the season progressed, but the walleye bite still remained better than last year.

“I was a little concerned when December came in at 51,000 (pounds), but we expected the catch rates and pressure to tail off in January and February, and they did,” Barnard said.

If history is any indication, this year’s extended winter could mean a late ice-out and a delayed spawning run on Upper Red and other large Minnesota walleye lakes. During previous springs with late ice-outs, high numbers of walleyes continued to stage near spawning areas such as the mouth of the Tamarack River, and fishing on Upper Red was nothing short of phenomenal.

“The spring bite is best the later the ice goes off,” Barnard said. “This could be shaping up to be one fantastic fishing opener up there.”

Article written by Brad Dokken of Forum News Service

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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