At the Manitowish Waters Town Hall on Aug. 14, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), along with Headwaters Basin Chapter of Walleyes for Tomorrow (WFT), held a meeting to gauge public opinion on a proposed change to the walleye size limit regulations on the Manitowish chain of lakes.
The proposal was initiated by WFT, who, with funds donated to and raised by the chapter, stocked the chain with over 42,000 extended growth walleyes.
“Walleyes for Tomorrow is proposing a change to the size limit on the chain,” John Hilbert of WFT said. “The reason for the change is to allow the walleyes to reach a mature age for reproduction. The fish we stocked are now large enough that anglers are keeping them. Walleyes for Tomorrow would like to see these stocked fish along with all walleyes reach a mature age and we feel like keeping fish under 15 inches could be detrimental to the reproduction. So those are the reasons why we’re looking at doing these changes this year.”
The current regulations allow for three fish to be harvested under 14 inches with one of those three fish allowed to be over 14 inches. WFT would like to see that changed to a harvest limit of three fish between 15 and 20 inches and no fish between 20-24 inches. The change would allow one of the three harvested fish to be over 24 inches.
According to Tom Kramer, chairman of the Headwaters Basin Chapter of WFT, such a change would protect the stocked fish into adulthood and promote better natural reproduction across the entire chain.
“We’d like those fish to mature so we have more natural reproduction,” Kramer said. “So we got more adults. If they mature and get to that 15 inch size limit and start reproducing, it’s just my opinion, I feel it would be a good thing for the whole Manitowish chain.”
State of the chain
To give the public an understanding of where recruitment and adult populations of walleye are on the chain, Vilas County WDNR fisheries biologist Eric Wegleitner and Steve Gilbert, Woodruff Area Fisheries team supervisor for the WDNR, presented the results of recent surveys done on the chain. The surveys were a collaborative effort.
“A lot of the data that’s out there tonight is not just collected by the Department of Natural Resources,” Gilbert said. “A lot of those surveys have been done by Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). We exchange data back and forth and use it together.”
In 2017 and 2018 electrofishing was done in the fall to survey the population of year zero and year one fish. That means walleyes which have survived their first and second summers. These walleyes have good odds of surviving and being recruited into the adult population, which means sexually mature fish or those at least fifteen inches. Therefore good numbers of year zero and year one fish are signs of healthy natural reproduction.
Only Clear Lake, Island Lake, and Rest Lake had numbers of those fish near the DNR’s average benchmark for recruitment for a naturally reproducing lake. The rest of the chain was well below average.
The data, which went back to 1991, also showed that wasn’t always the case on the chain. In years past, especially prior to 2008, recruitment was fantastic.
“Historically, if you look at the data that was presented here the Manitowish chain has some of the most outstanding walleye recruitment in the county. More recently that has not been the case,” Gilbert said. “We have not seen those higher numbers.”
The trend of low recruitment, though, has not seemed to affect the chain’s adult walleye population.
In addition to the fall recruitment surveys, Wegleitner presented the results from the 2019 spring adult walleye population survey. He compared them against a similar survey done in 2004 to show how the chain has changed over the years, and while recruitment has certainly dropped, the adult population of the chain has remained steady and statistically unchanged.
The only major drop was on Alder Lake which in 2004 had 6.1 adult walleye per acre and in 2019 there were not enough walleye to even calculate.
The other major change from 2004 to 2019 was the rise of Island Lake’s adult walleye population. It went from 3.4 per acre to 5.7 per acre, making it the highest populated lake on the chain. Rest Lake was the next highest populated with 2.8 adults per acre, followed by Clear Lake with 2.5 per acre.
Little Star Lake had two adult walleye per acre this spring, Manitowish Lake and Spider Lake had 1.4, and both Stone Lake and Wild Rice Lake had too few walleyes to calculate.
“We’re seeing that decline in recruitment, but we’re still maintaining that adult population,” Wegleitner said.
The fish stocked in 2016 have taken longer than normal to mature and therefore did not show up in the 2019 adult population surveys. However, they were detected in the fall of 2017’s young of the year surveys. The fish stocked in 2018 should show up in this fall’s young of the year survey.
Anglers have reported catching the 2016 fish, which were fin clipped when stocked.
“I’ve got numerous and I fish probably four days a week,” fishing guide and member of WFT Mike Kramer said. “And generally I catch a couple every time I’m out.”
The proposed change is one of four different options in the DNR regulation “toolbox.”
“We have something that’s called a regulation toolbox that’s been put together to give biologists and other fisheries managers kind of a template for some of the different options that are out there so there’s not all kinds of different crazy stuff going on,” Wegleitner said. “We kind of have just a few different ones that we can apply for different reasons.”
Other options besides the current regulation and the proposed change are a three fish limit, with no minimum length and a 14-inch to 18-inch protected slot. With that regulation one of three harvested fish can be over 18 inches. A final option is a three fish limit with an 18-inch minimum length.
The current no minimum length, one fish over 14 inches regulation, as well as the no minimum length, 14-inch to 18-inch protected slot, one over 18 inches regulation are used to thin out large amounts of young fish that are competing against each other for food and therefore growing slowly. These regulations are used in very good naturally producing systems which the Manitowish chain once was.
The proposed change, meaning the 15-inch minimum length with the 20-inch to 24-inch protected slot, one fish over 24 inches regulation, was designed to maintain or increase the amount of fish that make it to the adult population.
The 18-inch minimum length is used to increase densities of larger fish and improve reproduction by allowing them to get a few years into sexually reproducing lengths.
Public input collected by questionnaire
Members of the public were given a questionnaire from the WDNR and were asked which regulation they would like to see on the Manitowish chain. The questionnaire also asked for level of involvement with the Manitowish chain, meaning angler, tribal fisher, business owner, lakeside landowner, fishing guide, Walleyes for Tomorrow member, or other. It further surveyed level of fishing interest for different species of fish on the chain including walleye, musky, northern pike, bass, and panfish. Finally, the questionnaire asked the public if they preferred numbers of walleye in the chain over size, size over numbers, or a balance between the two.
“My job now will be to basically report back all the feedback that we received tonight to our administration and then they’ll collectively decide if it’s going to move on any further,” WDNR region program manager Mike Vogelsang said.
If the DNR determines there is support for the three fish, 15-inch minimum length, 20- inch to 24-inch protected slot, one over 24 inches regulation, based on the questionnaires collected at last Wednesday’s meeting, a public notice will go out into local newspapers. From there, if there is dissent, another, more formal public hearing will be held. However, if nothing is heard after the first public notice, another notice will go out stating that the change will go into effect.
According to state statute NR 20.35, because the current regulation on the chain was a special regulation when put into place years ago and the proposed change is the already established standard for the Northern region, the traditional three year process through the Conservation Congress and Natural Resources Board that most rule changes require could be bypassed.
However, if there is support for the other regulation options, the three year process would have to be followed.
It should also be noted that if a change is put into place it would be there until reason was brought forth to make another change, and that would, again, take a three year process.
Therefore, Gilbert advised patience if a regulation change is pursued.
“It takes a while,” he said. “You have to be patient with any fish regulation. You’re not going to see a change in a year. You’re not going to see a change in two years. Its going to take somewhere between five to 10 years to see a meaningful change in that fishery. It’s a long commitment.”
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]