GRAND FORKS, N.D. — They might not always bite, but walleyes and saugers continue to do well in Lake of the Woods, results from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ annual fall population assessment show.
That’s good news for anglers planning a trip to the big lake this winter, now that ice fishing is kicking into high gear.
“We’ve got a good abundance of walleyes out there and a nice distribution of sizes,” said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn. “The sauger catch was just a little bit below last year, but we’ve been running on the high side.”
As part of the fall population survey, which begins the Tuesday after Labor Day and continues for 17 consecutive days, DNR crews set nets at sites from the southeast corner of the lake to the Northwest Angle, pulling the nets the next day and tallying the size and abundance of species they catch.
This year’s survey tallied an average of 18.3 walleyes per net, which is above the management goal of 14 walleyes per net, and 22.2 saugers per net, exceeding management goals of at least 15 saugers per net, Talmage said.
Sauger catches have been in the “low 20s” per net the past four years, he said, and this year’s survey yielded good numbers of 13- to 15-inch saugers.
Smaller saugers from weaker hatches in 2018 and 2019 were less abundant, while saugers from the last strong year-class in 2017 now are 10 to 11 inches long.
A year-class, in fisheries-speak, refers to fish recruited to the population from a particular year’s hatch.
“Sauger abundance is still really strong on Lake of the Woods,” Talmage said. “We did have good abundance of those 13-inchers. There’s not a lot of really small saugers out there, not a lot below 10 inches.”
The abundance of keeper saugers is good news because saugers tend to bite all day; walleyes, by comparison, bite best during lower-light periods.
Because of that, saugers are the bread and butter of Lake of the Woods’ thriving winter fishing industry.
“The big difference between Lake of the Woods and a lot of other lakes is the walleye catch rate is really good here — as it is in other lakes, as well — but we have the sauger out there that seem to bite all day long and really keep anglers busy in the wintertime,” Talmage said.
Smaller saugers might be less abundant these days on Lake of the Woods, but anglers this winter can expect to be pestered by a plethora of small walleyes — “bait stealers,” Talmage calls them — from strong hatches in both 2018 and 2019.
The 2018 walleyes will be 8 to 10 inches long “and very abundant,” Talmage said; anglers also can expect some of the walleyes hatched last spring, and they’ll be even smaller.
Get past the bait stealers, and walleyes in the 15- to 19-inch range — the most desired “keepers” — are above average in abundance, while 13- to 14-inch walleyes are slightly below historical averages, Talmage said.
“We have some strong year-classes from the early to mid-2000s,” he said. “Anglers can expect some nice-size keepers.”
While the fall survey targets walleyes from 10 inches up to about 23 inches, anglers also have a good shot at bigger fish, continuing a trend that was very noticeable throughout the open water season.
“People have a chance to catch those larger fish above 20 inches all the way up to over 30 inches,” Talmage said. “There’s good numbers of big fish out there.”
Survey results also bode well for anglers with a penchant for perch; this year’s survey tallied an average of 5.9 perch per net.
“We don’t have an actual perch target, but perch numbers look really good,” Talmage said. “I expect anglers will be catching some nicer perch out there this winter if they’re able to luck into them.”
Muskeg Bay, areas near Garden Island and any of the midlake reefs from Big Traverse Bay up to the Northwest Angle are good bets for wintertime perch.
In an effort to maintain sauger populations amid ever-increasing ice fishing pressure, the DNR last March reduced the aggregate walleye and sauger limit to six, of which no more than four can be walleyes, matching the summer regulation.
Before the change, wintertime anglers on Lake of the Woods could keep an aggregate limit of eight walleyes and saugers, with no more than four walleyes allowed.
All walleyes from 19½ inches to 28 inches must be released, and one walleye larger than 28 inches is allowed.
Anglers last winter logged a record 2.1 million hours of fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods, and fishing pressure from the mid-May walleye opener through September was 760,000 angler-hours, Talmage said, which is about 10% higher than the six-year average.
That pressure, coupled with good fishing, led to some of the highest walleye and sauger harvests in years.
Anglers last winter kept 479,000 pounds of saugers, nearly twice the annual “target harvest” of 250,000 pounds. Coupled with 95,000 pounds during the open water period, anglers harvested an estimated 574,000 pounds of saugers during the winter of 2018-19 and the summer of 2019, DNR statistics show.
“We’re watching that (sauger) target very closely,” Talmage said. “We’re still seeing some really strong production, and we have good numbers out there.”
Anglers harvested 640,000 pounds of walleyes between the winter of 2018-19, when anglers kept 370,000 pounds of walleyes, and the open water season, when DNR creel surveys tallied a harvest of 270,000 pounds.
The walleye harvest is less concerning, Talmage said, because the six-year average is closer to the target of 540,000 pounds.
Bottom line, there’s cause for optimism this winter on the big lake — once again.
“We had a phenomenal summer, and I anticipate it should be a good year of ice fishing,” Talmage said. “Obviously, weather and the forage abundance out there — how hungry the fish are — is the other big factor of it all, but one way or another, the table is set for anglers to come up and have a good, fun time to catch some fish and take them home.”