/ Articles / Natural Resources Board hears information on walleye in the Minocqua Chain

Natural Resources Board hears information on walleye in the Minocqua Chain

April 17, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

Northern district fisheries supervisor Mike Vogelsang appeared before the Natural Resources Board (NRB) at its last meeting to present more information on the Minocqua Chain walleye study, going into its now sixth year. The original plan for the study was to move to a zero bag limit for walleye for five years. This bag limit was imposed on hook and line anglers, and tribes, too, agreed to a zero take from the Minocqua Chain during their annual spearing season. All of this was done in an effort to attempt to discern why walleye populations were declining in the chain and if this trend could be reversed. 

This year the board was asked to approve one more year of a zero bag limit for walleye on the chain, and 

asked for more information on the study and what results were being seen thus far. Vogelsang brought that information to the board last month. There were questions at the previous month’s meeting as to why the department had asked for the closure for one more year and if this would, indeed, be the last year the department asked for an extension on the moratorium. 

‘Ticking along really well’

Vogelsang told the board the goal was to have three adult walleye per acre in Minocqua, Kawaguesaga and two adults per acre on Lake Tomahawk. He provided some historical information about walleye populations. 

In the 1992 survey, he said, is was estimated there were 5.6 adult walleye per acre in Minocqua, 4.4 in Kawaguesaga and 2.5 in Lake Tomahawk. In 1998, those numbers were 4.6, 5.2 and 2.5, respectively. In 2009, he said, it was found there was a fairly drastic decline. No information had been gathered from the chain in the years in between. The 2009 survey showed 2.0 adult walleye per acre in Lake Minocqua, 3.4 in Kawaguesaga and 1.3 in Lake Tomahawk. 

The 2015 survey, which was near the beginning of this study, showed 1.0 adult walleye per acre in Minocqua, 1.3 in Kawaguesaga and 0.7 in Lake Tomahawk. As walleye populations declined, there was more carrying capacity for other species of fish, and the void left by the dwindling walleye population was filled by bass and crappie, he said.

“Historically speaking, the Minocqua Chain was ticking along really well,” Vogelsang told the board. When the fall in the population was noticed, he said, biologists reacted by increasing the size limit to 18 inches, and reduced the bag limit to three per day. They also removed the size limit for bass. Those changes, Vogelsang said, seemed to help initially.

In 2015, however, the DNR survey showed the population had halved yet again, so measures needed to be taken, he said. Also, around the year 2005, the chain lost natural reproduction. Due to the high bass and crappie populations, he said, there was limited recruitment in the small fingerlings being stocked into the chain. Coupled with the lack of natural reproduction, it was evident more would need to be done.

In 2014, Vogelsang said, Walleyes for Tomorrow approached the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with an offer of assistance in an effort to return the chain to its former walleye population numbers. To date, he said, Walleyes for Tomorrow has placed three spawning reefs into Lake Minocqua as well as helped with surveys and many volunteer hours. Just this year, the group also donated $50,000 to aid in law enforcement efforts on the chain.

“One of the key things they did early on was go out and met with the Lac du Flambeau tribe,” Vogelsang said. “And that was really an important moment with this whole project because that sparked all of us getting to work together.” 

From there, a partner group was formed. This group created a management plan for the chain. That plan included returning lakes Minocqua and Kawaguesaga to three adult walleye per acre and Lake Tomahawk to two adult walleye per acre, he told the board. 

He shared the current status of the populations with the board also. Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) lead the 2019 survey, he said, with efforts from all involved in the partnership. The survey revealed Lake Minocqua was on track. Kawaguesaga, Vogelsang said, was also close and the feeling was it would be at goal by this spring with the stocked year classes moving up. This spring, the DNR staff will be out on Lake Tomahawk, he said, to hopefully find it has returned to the targeted two adult fish per acre.

The issue, he said, is still the lack of natural reproduction. The fall survey last year, did show some young naturally produced fingerlings, but not enough to contribute to a year class. That was disappointing, Vogelsang said, and pointed to an area that would still need some work.

He also highlighted one of the biggest successes for the chain, which was the stocking program. Larger fingerlings are now being stocked, which allows them to escape predation much more than the small fingerlings could.

What’s next

In summary, Vogelsang said, the partner group wishes to continue stocking as well as keep the bag limit at zero for one more year. This would allow for one more year of study and also the partner group to create a regulation that would keep the walleye populations in the chain sustainable for the foreseeable future. 

Terry Hildenberg asked, if there was concern in 2005 regarding natural reproduction, why there was largely nothing done until 2014. Vogelsang said a small fingerling stocking program was implemented, but unfortunately, the results the department hoped for did not come to fruition. Now the department has the ability to raise extended growth walleyes, due largely to the Walleye Initiative.

NRB chairman Dr. Fred Prehn said the concerns he had been hearing were that stakeholders did not want the chain to be a “put and take” fishery. He said some thought the fingerlings were genetically unable to reproduce in the chain. 

Vogelsang said, though, the genetics were coming from the chain, with most of the eggs coming from Lake Tomahawk. While there has not been strong natural reproduction up to this point, the belief was that it would take four to five years to start seeing that reproduction. With this being just the fifth year of the study, he said, natural reproduction from the stocked extended growth fingerlings should start to be seen, which will continue to be part of this study going forward. 

“The habitat is there, we do have the adult numbers there now. We’re just crossing our fingers that we see it in the next couple of years,” Vogelsang said. 

Prehn also heard the concern that this would be brought forward again and again, with a zero bag on walleye continuing. At the same time, he said, it would be “stupid,” to open it too early.

Vogelsang responded that the survey is a stepped approach. While the goal would be to keep the fishery closed until it could be self-sustaining again, political pressure to reopen the fishery prior to that time may play a role, he admitted when Prehn asked the question. The anglers, he said, had been very patient and the vast majority of anglers are behind the project, he said.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected]

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