There was a full house on hand at the Woodruff Town Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 23 to hear results from a 2019 spring walleye population estimate conducted on Lake Minocqua and Lake Kawaguesaga by members of the Headwaters Basin chapter of Walleyes for Tomorrow (WFT) and biologists from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC).
The meeting, hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was also intended to give a history of the chain as well as gather public input concerning future walleye management decisions.
The five-year emergency rule that went into place in 2015, which closed walleye harvest on the chain, will soon expire, and it is undetermined when, or if, the chain will open in the spring of 2020.
On Wednesday night, a proposal, supported by all members of a partnership that includes WFT, GLIFWC, DNR, the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, and the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company (WVIC), was made to keep the chain closed for another year, and the reasoning was simple. The work is not yet done. The partners haven’t achieved all the goals of the rehabilitation project they began in 2015.
Those goals included boosting the adult walleye population on the chain and establishing natural reproduction.
The results from this past spring’s population estimate showed the first of those goals is being accomplished with the harvest closure and some help from over 200,000 fish stocked in the chain over the last five years.
In 2015 there was one adult walleye per acre in Lake Minocqua and 1.3 per acre on Kawaguesaga. Data shows there are now 3.78 adults per acre on Minocqua and 2.61 on Kawaguesaga.
“This has been really successful so far. The stocked fish are surviving. The adult populations are increasing,” GLIFWC inland fisheries biologist Mark Luehring, who led the 2019 spring survey, said. “We got almost four times as many fish in Minocqua, adult fish, as we did in 2015, and double in Kawaguesaga. That’s really good news. That’s what we wanted to see. But we still got a ways to go.”
The original goals of the partner group were three adult walleye per acre on Minocqua and Kawaguesaga and two per acre on Lake Tomahawk.
Therefore they fell just short on Kawaguesaga. Lake Tomahawk was not surveyed.
But they also fell short on their second major goal. Natural reproduction.
This fall, during young of the year surveys, the DNR found no age zero fish in Minocqua and one age zero fish in Kawaguesaga. Age zero fish are fish that would have been naturally produced in the spring and then have survived their first summer.
“We’re not seeing what we want to see for recruitment,” Oneida County DNR fisheries biologist Zach Woiak said. “It’s very limited natural recruitment. It’s very minimal if any at all. Each year we find just a handful of fish in the system.”
Woiak went on to explain the benchmark for a good naturally reproducing lake is 15 young of the year per mile.
“Pulling off a year class of that strength is an indication that that year class is probably going to make it or recruit to adulthood,” Woiak said. “So we want to see that every couple years in the plan.”
So far the chain is not even close to that benchmark.
“As of right now the fishery is maintained by stocking,” Woiak said.
Henceforth the partner group’s push to keep the chain closed for another year.
Because, according to Lawrence Eslinger, DNR fisheries biologist, with the rising numbers of adult walleyes, the chain is fertile enough, right now, to support natural reproduction.
“The first stockings are showing,” Eslinger said. “Those 2012, ’13, ’14 fish. The majority of those fish are all now spawning adult fish, and a good proportion of those are younger males. It’s not like we can’t expect to see natural reproduction right now, that’s not true, there’s plenty of fish that natural reproduction can occur.”
It’s just a matter of time according to Gregg Walker, WFT Minocqua representative and publisher of The Lakeland Times.
“I would ask that you be patient,” Walker said. “It doesn’t happen overnight and it can’t be fixed over night. Mother Nature takes time, and WFT believes in this project.”
WFT believes so strongly in the project, it has donated over $125,000 towards it’s goals. WFT built three new spawning reefs and also put money forth to hire a warden dedicated solely to fishing regulations on the chain.
“There’s been a lot of work done,” Walker said. “I’m just asking that a little more time might give us some very critical answers to sustaining a fishery that in its day, in its hey day, was one of the best walleye fisheries in the Midwest bar none.”
In 1992 Lake Minocqua was at 5.6 adult walleye per acre, Kawaguesaga was at 4.4 adults, and Lake Tomahawk was at 2.5.
By 2009 those numbers had drastically dropped to two per acre on Lake Minocqua, 3.4 on Kawaguesaga, and 1.3 on Lake Tomahawk.
“These aren’t necessarily really poor population estimates, but the red flags that came along with these population estimates is what really got everybody concerned,” Woiak said.
The red flags were that no young fish were coming up in the population and the majority of the fish, 40% in fact, were old fish over 20 inches.
The chain was clearly not sustaining itself. By 2015, the adult numbers were even lower and natural recruitment was essentially gone. That’s when the partners put their project into action.
And while the numbers are not at their historic highs, they are significantly on the rise.
“I would say that the stocking and the closure have been successful in increasing the population,” Luehring said. “That’s what we wanted to see at the start of this and that’s what we’re seeing in the data so far.”
‘A good direction forward’
Natural reproduction, however, is another question, and one that doesn’t seem to have an answer. Theories range from predation and competition from bass and panfish to high water levels, but no single cause has been identified.
“There’s no smoking gun,” Eslinger said. “It’s always a combination of factors on every different system.”
What is known is fry are being hatched, but are then disappearing at some point in their first summer.
Lyle Chapman, a Lac du Flambeau tribal representative on the Voigt Task force, said the Lac du Flambeau Tribe is on board for taking the time necessary to answer the questions remaining on the chain.
“Everything’s going good,” Chapman said. “We just got to figure out what’s going on and keep working on it really. None of us know ’til somebody finds it out. Somebody will get it one of these days. But we’re on track to keep it closed another year.”
Luehring shared that sentiment of patience.
“We just recommended a conservative approach,’’ he said. “And what the partners talked about and what they discussed with keeping it closed for at least another year, that’s really in line with that. And we really appreciated everybody coming to that place together cooperatively. And we think that’s a really good direction forward.”
Ben Niffenegger, manager of environmental affairs for the WVIC, agreed and said the strength of the partner group is that they proceed with well informed decisions.
“What I liked about this was really making decisions kind of based on what the information is that we’re getting from some of this research, some of this data,” he said. “And so that’s what I would continue to support is taking this conservative approach. It seems like we’re going down the right track.”
A side benefit to keeping the chain closed another year is Lake Tomahawk would get the chance to have a population estimate done on it next spring.
“Next spring if the catch and release, or closure, is extended we had plans to go in there and do a population estimate on the walleye,” DNR fisheries supervisor Mike Vogelsang said. “So then we could come back and see if we’re at that benchmark yet. Of course it’s a little bigger survey, so we’d postpone some other surveys that we had planned for next spring and we would make sure we got that one done.”
For the chain to remain closed another year, another emergency rule would have to be sent before the Natural Resources Board for approval before it goes into effect.
“If we got support not only from the partner group, but the local angling public, there’s a very, very good chance that that would go through,” Vogelsang said. “This is the first step in that process. To gauge the sentiment and feeling of the local anglers.”
Those in attendance were given a survey that gauged their level of interest in the Minocqua chain, their involvement with it, their familiarity with it, their perception of it, and what they valued it for.
The survey also asked those taking it if they would support extending the closure on the chain through March of 2021.
“We want to do right what’s right for the resource,’’ said James Yach, DNR secretaries’ director for the northern counties. “And also in doing so make sure we have public buy in.”
Last Wednesday night, the public cast their ballot and when the surveys are tallied it will soon be determined if they, like the partner group, are all in for another year of closure on the Minocqua chain.
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]