Eye candy for the winter impaired, that's what they were.

There's just something about big, fat, glossy-green walleyes that makes your eyes pop and your mouth hang open even when she's not on the end of your line. Try not to drool.

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You could call her a hog or a pig or a monster, but those seem almost disrespectful. Best just to ogle in silence.

On a sunny late April day members of the Twin Ports Walleye Association volunteered to help biologists from the Minneostra and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources measure, weigh and record data of spawning walleyes taken out of the rootbeer-colored St. Louis River.

DNR crews used a beamy, flat bottomed boat equipped with a generator and electric-shocker that stuns fish in shallow water upstream of Minnesota Highway 23, near the Fond du Lac Dam. Fisheries crews then scooped up as many walleyes as they could before the fish could recover and swim away - usually just a few seconds after being hit with the charge.

"We have to be fast. They are only up on top maybe 15 seconds. And the current is going pretty good, so you don't get a lot of time to scoop fish,'' said Dan Wilfond, Minnesota DNR fisheries biologist.

Their big boat box full of fish, DNR crews would bring their load to the Fond du Lac Campground where walleye association crews were waiting. The fish waited their turn in a livestock feeding tough fitted with an aerator, with the water replaced between every delivery.

It was a steady stream of big, fat walleyes that just kept coming. The water temperature was 46.2 degrees, right in the sweet spot for walleye spawning. The river was high, but not flooding, just about perfect conditions.

"Look at this one!'' exclaimed Timmon Lund, a member of the walleye group, pausing briefly to show off a massive, 28-inch female ready to lay her eggs. Lund gently set her in a plastic trough to measure her as DNR officers record the data on a laptop computer. "Female. Ripe. 711'' millimeters long, Lund called off.

The fish was then gently plopped back into the river to finish her spawning run. (Unlike years past, no eggs are taken out of St. Louis River walleyes any more because of possible contamination with VHS disease. The population is considered self-sustaining and needs no stocking.)

Over three days crews scooped up and recorded more than 1,000 walleyes - several of them monsters up to 30 inches. They also caught plenty of smaller fish, indicating a fairly healthy fishery, said Jeramy Pinkerton, Minnesota DNR fisheries biologist.

"We do a targeted survey every year like this just to see how they are doing, how the sizer structure and age structure are and checking to see if there's the right balance of big and small fish,'' Pinkerton said.

In some cases, a single spine was taken out of the fish's dorsal fin. Next winter, with their field work compete, biologists will go into the lab and check those spines that reveal the age of the fish just like rings on a tree.

While 1,000 fish is a small sample, Pinkerton liked what he saw, not just the usual big spawning females but younger, smaller fish that showed evidence of a recent, successful year class or two.

"I was happy to see the number of small fish we saw,'' Pinkeront said.

Biologists and anglers alike are hoping a big hatch of fish in 2012 and 2013 will now pump new fish into the catchable size range starting this year. Those appear to be the most recent successful year-classes and will have to make up for poor classes in previous years.

Brandyn Kachinske, president of the Twin Ports walleye Association, aid the club's first effort at helping DNR crews went well. DNR officalssaqid they appreciate the extra hands.

"We've been barking at them (DNR) for quite a few years over walleye numbers in the river but we also wanted them to know we are here to help when they need extra bodies,'' Kachinske said. "I think it's mutually beneficial, for our guys to see how DNR is looking at the fishery. I'm hoping it's the beginning of a long-term working relationship."

 

Bigger study in 2020

The Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR crews in 2020 will conduct a much more thorough population survey, capturing and tagging 8,000-plus walleyes and then recording how many are recaptured, either by the biologists or anglers. Using complicated algorithms the recapture rate of tagged fish will give biologists a good estimate on the overall population.

The river's overall population was down considerably in 2015, the last major survey year. That survey showed an estimated 46,862 walleye in the river system, which also includes the western end of Lake Superior. That's down from 76,000 estimated in 1981 and estimates of up to 90,000 walleyes made by fisheries biologists in other years.

Moreover, the 2015 survey also found that anglers caught and kept more walleyes than produced in a single year on the river/lake system, with the harvest hitting 106 percent of production. That level would be unsustainable, if it continued over the long run. The system produced about 20,500 pounds of new walleye biomass in 2015 but anglers kept nearly 21,000 pounds, about one-fifth of the total walleye biomass in the system.

Pinkerton said the 2012 and 2013 classes may reverse the downward trend. If not, biologists and DNR officials will use the results of the 2020 survey to help determine if changes are needed in fishing regulations, such as how many or what size fish anglers can keep.

The current limit on the river is two walleyes over 15 inches per day.

 

SIDEBARS:

The Minnesota opener

• Minnesota's inland fishing season opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday for walleyes, northern pike, bass (with restrictions; consult regulations) and lake trout.

• You can safely bet Minneosta will have about 1.1 million licensed anglers this year. License sales have been amazingly consistent over the past 10 years - between 1.19 and 1.11 million. About half of those anglers are estimated to be out on opening weekend, if the weather is nice.

• Fishing licenses are available at ELS (Electronic Licensing System) agents statewide, such as bait shops and sporting goods stores, as well as online at mndnr.gov/buyalicense or by phone at 888-665-4236.

• Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan will spend the 72nd annual Governor's Fishing Opener on Fountain Lake near Albert Lea, just miles from the Iowa border.

• May 11 and 12 are "Take A Mom Fishing Weekend" when Minnesota resident moms fish free, no license needed. Don't forget, Mother's Day is May 12.

• Some areas will be closed to fishing to protect concentrations of spawning walleyes. No fishing will be allowed on the St. Louis River from the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge up to the Minnesota-Wisconsin boundary cable through May 19. (And remember even the Wisconsin side of the St. Louis River and Twin Ports harbor remains closed until May 11.)

• Cook County closures include the Sea Gull River from Sea Gull Lake through Gull Lake to Saganaga Lake approximately 1/3 mile north of the narrows; closed through May 24; Saganaga Falls on the Minnesota‑Ontario border where the Granite River enters Saganaga Lake; closed through May 31; Maligne River (also known as Northern Light Rapids) on the Ontario side of Saganaga Lake; closed through May 31 by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry; Unnamed channel between Little Gunflint and Little North Lakes on the Minnesota‑Ontario border; closed through May 31; Cross River (inlet to Gunflint Lake) from the Gunflint Trail to Gunflint Lake; closed through May 24; Tait River from White Pine Lake to the Forest Road 340 crossing, including a portion of White Pine Lake, from May 11 to May 24; Junco Creek from the first log dam above County Road 57 downstream to Devil Track Lake, and including a portion of Devil Track Lake near the river mouth, from May 11 to May 24.

 

Ice-out dates

Walleyes spawn after the ice-out goes out when water temperatures hit the mid-40s. Depending on when that happens, it will in large part determine where fish will be located and how eager they will be to bite on opening day.

In general, northern Minnesota lakes lost/are losing their rice a few days behind schedule but a but ahead of last year.

Here are some popular lake ice-out dates:

 

Mille Lacs

2019: April 28

Average: April 25

Earliest: March 26, 2012

Latest: May 16, 2013

 

Winnibigoshish

2019: April 30

Average: April 26

Earliest: March 28, 2012

Latest: May 17, 2013

 

Vermilion

2019: April 30

Average: April 30

Earliest: March 28, 2012

Latest: May 23, 1950

 

Big Sandy

2019: April 25

Average: April 21.

Earliest: March 26. 2012

Latest: May 12, 2013