GRAND FORKS — If it seems as if Lake of the Woods has been kicking out an abundance of big walleyes this summer, it’s not an illusion.

It has.

Especially striking, it seems, is the number of walleyes in the 27- to 28-inch range — fish in the 19½- to 28-inch protected slot on Lake of the Woods — that must be released but still are a thrill for anglers to catch, photograph and release.

“It’s ridiculous how many big fish there are,” said Curt Quesnell, who lives near Long Point north of Williams, Minn., and operates NCOR Fishing Guide Service. “And you look back at what you’re catching, you’re catching as many 27s (inch walleyes) as you’re catching 28s, so this is going to get even better. There’ll be more over 28 next year.”

Quesnell, a longtime Thief River Falls, Minn., radio personality who named his guide service after the “North Country Outdoors Radio” show he hosted before retiring in 2016 and moving to Long Point, said clients have boated at least 40 walleyes measuring 28 inches or longer this summer.

A lot of “personal bests” have come into the boat, Quesnell says, a trend he attributes at least in part to the slot limit.

“It’s not just one thing, but I think the slot has helped a lot,” he said. “No matter where you fish, no matter what tactic you use on the lake — old school or new school — you’re still catching these big fish. They’re all over.”

No doubt it’s been quite a summer on the big pond, agreed Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, Minn.

“It’s kind of crazy how it’s going in the sense that it started with the (mid-May) fishing opener, and it’s stayed good all season long,” Talmage said. “We’re getting reports of people catching a lot of small fish, a lot of big fish (and) a lot of eater fish.”

Wind keeps anglers off the lake some days, but when the weather cooperates, the walleyes and saugers generally cooperate, as well.

“For the most part, wherever anglers are trying to go to find (fish), they’re getting on them,” he said.

By the numbers

Based on results from annual fall netting assessments, Lake of the Woods has strong numbers of walleyes from the 2011 and 2013 year-classes, Talmage said. Walleyes from the 2013 hatch are in the 15- to 17-inch range, while fish from the 2011 hatch are 18 to 20 inches long, he said.

“And actually, 2014 was pretty good, too,” Talmage said. “And really, what’s driving a lot of this is the fact that when we have a down year for walleye production, it’s still moderate production. So we’re not seeing a lot of gaps in our walleye production on Lake of the Woods.”

Last year’s fall assessment showed 10 percent of the walleyes sampled were 20 inches or longer, while sauger catches, at 26 per net, exceed the management goal of about 16 per net.

“Our walleye and sauger abundance are both very healthy and strong,” Talmage said.

The DNR is conducting a creel survey this summer on Lake of the Woods to get a better handle on angler demographics and fishing pressure and harvest, but those numbers won’t be available until later in the year after the survey has been completed.

Unlike Upper Red Lake and Lake Mille Lacs, where creel survey results are tallied monthly, there isn’t a “trigger point” on Lake of the Woods that might lead to tighter regulations if the harvest reaches a certain level, Talmage said.

Instead, the DNR manages Lake of the Woods with an annual target of 540,000 pounds, he said, the level of walleye harvest managers feel the lake can sustain without affecting the population, based on computer models developed from survey data.

Some years, the harvest falls short of that number; other years — and this could be one of them — the harvest may surpass 540,000 pounds.

“We’re fairly comfortable that that 540,000-pound mark, on an average basis, is where we’d like to see it,” Talmage said. “We recognize we’re going to have some years a little over and some years where we’re going to be a little under. Most likely, it’s kind of looking like this will be one of those years where we’re a little over, but you never know until we get done at the end of season and start crunching the numbers.”

If the fishery was showing signs of stress, annual assessments would reflect that, he said.

“We did have fairly high harvest of both walleye and sauger last winter, so if we do come in with a real high harvest this summer, we could find ourselves over our target,” Talmage said. “But like I say, we’ll look back and see where our trend is going as far as recent years. We’ll also be able to evaluate and consider that information.”

Going deep

Typical for this time of year, walleyes and saugers have moved to deeper water. With a maximum depth of about 37 feet in U.S. waters, fish on the Minnesota side of the lake are “right at that threshold” Talmage said, where changes in water pressure can cause the swim bladder to expand, resulting in a condition known as barotrauma or, more commonly, “the bends.”

Coupled with warmer water and the stress of the fight, the result can be fatal if fish aren’t handled properly.

“I wouldn’t call these deepwater-caught fish, but if you’re catching fish and you’re releasing fish, try to get the fish back in the water as soon as possible,” Talmage said. “The faster a fish can get back to the depths or pressure it was at when it’s caught, the better its chances of survival.”

And if anglers are catching fish in a particular area that consistently are too big to keep, Talmage suggests changing locations.

“A lot of times, fish have a tendency of concentrating by size,” he said. “Maybe move somewhere else where you’re catching fish in your keeper-size range and so you don’t have to just be throwing those fish back with a real low survival rate.”

Quesnell says he tells clients to have cameras at the ready, and in the past couple of weeks, even has released big fish without bringing them into the boat for photos.

“It’s 30-35 seconds and those fish are back in,” he said. “They’ll swim away if you can work them a little bit, but you’ve got to get them back in the water as soon as you can.”

Hopefully, he says, the big fish bonanza continues for years to come.

“Last year was great, the year before that was great and this year is at least twice as good,” Quesnell said. “You wonder what’s going to happen in the future, but I just think we’ve got a couple more years of this getting even better.”