Walleye anglers on the St. Louis River are having a good year
St. Louis River anglers remember those 100-walleye days of a few years ago. The fishing was amazing, and anglers flocked to the river to get in on the action.
Then something happened. Those days were over. The water seemed to be clearer. Aquatic vegetation flourished. Walleyes became tougher to catch. A lot of anglers figured the walleyes just weren’t there.
Then, as if a switch was flipped, fishing improved dramatically last summer, up and down the river. Especially downriver.
“It was the best in many years — maybe 10 years,” said Duluth’s Andrew Frielund, vice president of the Twin Ports Walleye Association. “Allouez (Bay) was insane for six weeks.”John Lindgren was happy that anglers were catching fish again. And somewhat relieved.
Lindgren is a fisheries specialist senior with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at French River. His focus is the St. Louis River fishery.
When Frielund and other members of the Twin Ports Walleye Association, a group formed in 2010, grew concerned about walleye fishing in those lean years, they asked Lindgren to speak at their meetings. Lindgren kept assuring the anglers that the walleyes were still there.
It was an awkward time, Lindgren said.
“It’s a cautious interaction when the two groups don’t agree,” he said. “They (TPWA members) were concerned about catch rates. They were thinking that was a direct result of something wrong with the population, that the numbers were diminishing.”
But summer walleye sampling on the river had continued to show plenty of walleyes, even in years when fishing was tough, Lindgren said. In the language of fisheries biologists, the DNR was finding from 5 to 8 walleyes per net lift in those summer assessments, Lindgren said. That was right in line with assessments over the previous 20 years when fishing was good, he said.
Also, the DNR’s spring electro-fishing index of spawning walleyes didn’t seem to change during the period of slower fishing, Lindgren said.
“Our catch rates were the same, and the size structure (range of fish in various lengths) was the same,” Lindgren said.
What happened? Anglers wondered why fishing improved so dramatically on the river last summer. Had the walleyes really been there all along?
Well, yes, the DNR’s Lindgren contends. And Dave Nelson, president of the TPWA, agrees now.
“There were plenty of fish in the river,” Nelson said. “Their (DNR’s) sampling showed that. But we couldn’t catch ’em. There was just more cover, and we couldn’t get ’em.”
It wasn’t that those anglers, many of them TPWA members, had forgotten how to catch walleyes.
“I think they’re the best walleye anglers on that fishery,” Lindgren said.
Lindgren explained what had happened. The St. Louis River is charged largely by bogs far upstream. Water in those bogs is stained by tannic acid, and that’s what gives the river its typical amber color. The dark water also allows less light to penetrate, retarding the growth of aquatic vegetation.
But for a period of drier years, much of the water in the river came from surface run-off. The bogs weren’t being flushed out as they are in periods of normal rainfall, Lindgren said. The water cleared, allowing vegetation to grow. Fishing walleyes is nearly always more difficult in clear water than stained water. Anglers weren’t catching walleyes in the places they had typically caught them.
Then came the flood of June 2012. That event scoured the river, clearing out lots of aquatic plants. With more water in the system again, the bogs were flushed out, too, returning the estuary to its more normal stained color.
“I think the flood was good for the river,” Nelson said. “It opened up new gravel beds, especially upriver.”
And, starting last summer, anglers were in the good old days of walleye fishing again.
Anglers like Duluth’s Frielund began to see some 70-fish afternoons.
“It was very nice to see catch rates improve last summer,” Lindgren said.
Frielund and Nelson are optimistic that good fishing will continue this summer.
Concern over regulations In the summer of 2015, DNR fisheries officials in both Minnesota and Wisconsin plan to do a creel assessment on the river, in which anglers are surveyed upon leaving the river after fishing. Creel assessments are one more way DNR biologists monitor the river’s walleye population and angler success. The last on the river was done in 2003.
TPWA members welcome the creel assessment. They remain concerned that regulations on the river may be too liberal. The limits allow anglers to keep two walleyes per day that are longer than 15 inches. That’s in contrast to the walleye limit on Minnesota inland waters, which allows anglers to keep six walleyes but only one longer than 20 inches.
The TPWA thinks anglers may be keeping too many large walleyes, even in a daily limit of two fish, Nelson said.
The last creel survey of anglers showed broad support among anglers for the current regulation, which is a border-waters rule shared with Wisconsin, Lindgren said.
“People perceive that it’s preserving the high-quality walleye fishing,” Lindgren said.
Statewide research has shown that the vast majority of anglers don’t catch two fish over 20 inches in a day, he said.
Changing a border waters regulation is more difficult than changing a regulation on inland waters, Lindgren said, because the change must be approved by both states.