I wasn’t sure how my Sunday, Feb. 2, column about the extensive fishing pressure occurring this winter -- and indeed most winters -- on Lake of the Woods would be received, but the response was almost unanimously positive.
Obviously, I’m not the only one wondering how much pressure the big lake can withstand without the quality of fishing being affected.
To recap, I posed the question, “How much is too much?” on Lake of the Woods, where anglers last winter logged an estimated 2.1 million hours of fishing pressure, based on a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources creel survey, and ice road operators now have roads plowed nearly all the way to Garden Island, some 30 miles northwest of Wheelers Point at the mouth of the Rainy River.
The pressure is even more intense this winter on Lake of the Woods, which has dodged the worst of the snowstorms and blizzards that affected ice thickness on many northern Minnesota lakes and resulted in deep slush that made access all but impossible.
It will be interesting to see how a winter creel survey now underway plays out, but if I was a betting man, I’d put my money on fishing pressure being closer to 3 million angler hours than 2 million.
The bigger question, of course, is whether the harvest will exceed the 370,000 pounds of walleyes and 479,000 pounds of saugers anglers kept last winter on Lake of the Woods, based on DNR creel survey estimates. Coupled with summer fishing, the harvest in both cases exceeded the annual targets the DNR feels each species can sustain on Lake of the Woods without the population being negatively affected.
Whether that kind of pressure is sustainable remains to be seen, yet the big lake continues to crank out fish at a rate that rivals any drive-to lake in North America. Fishing on Lake of the Woods this past summer was excellent -- especially for big walleyes -- and the trend continued after freeze-up, although the action more recently has slowed, based on many reports I’ve heard. That’s not unusual for this time of year.
The closest thing to a negative comment on my recent column came from a reader who questioned why I didn’t mention the impact of gillnets used in Lake Winnipeg and in Ontario waters of Lake of the Woods.
Neither situation is relevant to the issue at hand: the harvest and fishing pressure on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods.
Another reader cited the impact of social media and anglers who feel obligated to tell the world when and where they’re catching fish.
Being more of a tight-lipped fisherman myself, I’ve always found that difficult to understand.
“While fishing for three days (with two days of quiet) in an area that I frequent often, a person posted on the second day the location, and I kid you not, as far as you could see on the third day, there were thousands of people,” he wrote. “Just unbelievable.
“I believe the impact of social media has far surpassed electronics and mobility,” he added. “There is not an access to the lake that is quiet anymore. Such a shame after commercial fishing stopped in the 1980s with a nice recovery, and now the impact is two times greater than the ’80s impact.”
Unless something changes, he feared, “Mille Lacs regs are coming to Lake of the Woods very soon.”
Perhaps the most novel idea -- though one that would never fly -- came from a resort owner I’ve known for more than two decades but hadn’t spoken with in years.
In response to all of the wheelhouses now on the ice, he suggested implementing a permit system with a lottery.
When he called the other day, I half expected a tongue-lashing. Instead, he told me he’d been harping on the DNR for years to do something about the pressure.
The lake should be managed on science, he said, and nothing else; simply monitoring pressure and harvest isn’t enough. And if people complain about another drop in limits after last year’s reduction, his response was, “So what?”
Another caller, who has a cabin on Lake of the Woods and grew up fishing the lake, said he appreciated the article and the “guts” -- his words -- it took to write.
“I have been on my soapbox for the last seven or eight years about this,” he said.
No doubt, the pressure on Lake of the Woods and all of the factors driving it are getting people’s attention. It definitely bears watching.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.