The popular late winter and early spring walleye season on the Rainy River would become catch-and-release only, and the winter limit for sauger on Lake of the Woods would be reduced, under changes proposed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The changes are part of a draft, long-term management plan the DNR unveiled this week that's out for public comment through July 11.
The DNR next week is expected to propose the reduced limits as part of an official rule change process that will include public meetings and signs at local boat landings.
The new management plan could be adopted later this year, but any change in state fishing rules likely wouldn't occur until 2019, said Phil Talmage, Lake of the Woods area fisheries supervisor for the DNR.
The goal of the proposed changes is to reduce the overall harvest of both walleye and sauger on the big border lake and the river that feeds into it. Harvest of both species has been well above target goals set by the DNR as safe for the long-term health of the fishery.
The new management plan includes proposals to:
• Change the late winter/spring (March 1 to April 14) walleye season limit from two walleyes daily under 19.5 inches to catch-and-release only with no walleyes allowed to be kept.
• Cut the winter ice fishing limit from a combined eight walleyes and sauger daily, no more than four of which may be walleyes, to six walleyes and sauger daily, with no more than four walleyes. The six walleye and sauger limit already is in place during summer months.
The catch and release season would be aimed at protecting smaller, male walleyes in the Rainy River. The fish caught at that time of year are on their way up the river to spawn in what in recent decades has become a very popular fishing destination for anglers looking to catch huge walleyes. Anglers have been required to release all big walleyes for years but had been allowed to keep two "eater" size walleyes.
"While overall walleye catch rates have remained good during our spring walleye assessment, showing no concerning trends, we have observed a reduced proportion of males on the spawning area during the spring," Talmage said. He said the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has "initiated conversation" within the agency about similar rules for its side of the river.
The change from eight to six walleyes and saugers during winter months should help bring the sauger harvest back in line with management goals, the draft management plan notes. The plan makes it clear that walleye reproduction and fishing success both remain strong on Lake of the Woods but that there are concerns over the future.
"This change would reduce overall walleye harvest while sustaining fishing opportunities," the plan notes.
Fishing pressure on the giant lake that Minnesota shares with Ontario and Manitoba has increased rapidly in recent years, especially winter ice fishing. The DNR's goal for walleye harvest on the Minnesota portion of the lake is 540,000 pounds per year, for example, but anglers have been averaging nearly 600,000 pounds.
The sauger harvest goal is 250,000 pounds per year, but anglers have been averaging 405,000 pounds per year. Some 80 percent of the sauger harvest is during winter months and that's when Lake of the Woods has seen a doubling of angling pressure since the 1990s, Talmage said.
"Before 2000 we never had a winter when angling pressure hit one million angling hours. Since then we've been above it every year but one. And in the last few winters we've been up around two million hours," Talmage said, noting a vastly expanded network of access roads plowed on the frozen lake make it easier for winter anglers to get around. "No one even 20 years ago would have ever dreamed how much ice fishing is going on out here."
Joe Henry, a Lake of the Woods fishing guide and executive director of the Lake of the Woods Area Tourism Bureau, who served on the 14-member citizens advisory committee on the new management plan, said he thinks most anglers will accept the changes.
"Everything we talked about for a half-dozen meetings (of the advisory committee) was about sustainability. It's easier to do things now, to get ahead of any problems, rather than have to react to something," Henry said. "Time will tell if the market will accept it. It's just a proposal now. But I think most people will accept these. It's all about keeping a great fishery."
The proposed Lake of the Woods management plan calls for no major changes in sturgeon on northern pike regulations or management.
The draft plan is the result of DNR recommendations that were discussed and refined by the citizens advisory committee representing anglers, resort owners and other interested parties. To see the plan or to make formal comments online go to dnr.state.mn.us/lakeofthewoods.