When the Minocqua chain will open up for walleye harvest has been one of the most pressing questions concerning local fishing as of late and a public input meeting planned for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Woodruff Town Hall will go a long way in answering that.
This past spring, members of Walleyes for Tomorrow and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission conducted a snap shot survey of the walleye population on Lake Minocqua and Lake Kawaguesaga. The data collected from that walleye population estimate will be presented to the public at that public meeting.
What that data will show is the adult walleye population has risen significantly since 2015. That was a major goal when the chain was shut down for walleye harvest as part of a major walleye rehabilitation project spearheaded by a partner group including the Headwaters Basin chapter of Walleyes for Tomorrow (WFT), the Lac du Flambeau Band, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Unfortunately, the data will also show signs of good natural reproduction, the other major goal of the project, have not been identified. And because of this the partner group is pushing to keep the chain closed for one more year — and closely watched.
WFT has allocated $50,000 for additional warden coverage on the chain to ensure the no harvest rule, should it be extended, is being strictly enforced.
But the emergency rule enacted in 2015 to shut down the chain only called for five years of no harvest, so to keep the chain closed one more year, a new emergency rule must go into place to extend the closure and there must be public support. The public input meeting scheduled for next Wednesday is designed to gauge that support.
‘We just want to do this right’
“The main purpose is to get that information out to the public and then also talk about some management options that the partner group has discussed over the summer,” DNR fisheries supervisor Mike Vogelsang said. “One of those is to potentially keep the chain closed to walleye harvest for one additional year, and the purpose behind that is to increase our chances for getting natural reproduction to occur.”
This fall the DNR did a young-of- the-year survey on the chain and the results were dismal.
“Our surveys that we did a couple of weeks ago turned up just a handful of naturally reproduced walleye. I mean like five or six individual fish. So essentially immeasurable,” Vogelsang said. “What we hope to see if we get good natural reproduction occurring is somewhere in that 10-15 per mile range. That would be a good index, and it wasn’t even a blip on the radar this fall again.”
This was even more disheartening due to the fact that on other lakes it was a great year for natural walleye reproduction.
“Coincidentally, looking more broadly across the area, it appeared to be a really good spring for natural reproduction on other lakes,” Vogelsang said. “We had some really, really good hits with reproduction on a lot of area lakes, so the conditions were definitely ripe for producing a natural year class out there, but it’s just unfortunate that it didn’t happen yet.”
Tom Kramer, chairman of the Headwaters Basin of WFT, said opening up the chain in 2020, which was when the original 2015 emergency rule dictated it would open, would be premature and undo a lot of work put into raising the adult walleye population numbers. That work that has included an extensive stocking schedule as well as spawning habitat restoration.
“We just did it with a five year study to try and get the thing going,” Kramer said. “Until we get natural reproduction back, if we start harvesting them, what good is what we did up to this day? Basically, let’s give it a chance. We waited this long. If we have to wait a little bit longer then I think it should be done.”
Vogelsang agreed and said everyone in the partner group wants to see the project all the way through, even if it takes a bit more time than originally planned.
“We just want to do this right. We don’t want to stop four-fifths of the way through this project and call it good enough,” he said. “We want to do this the right way and make sure we’re meeting the goals so that when it does open we’re not just going to knock it back down again.”
‘Do it right the first time’
If there is no public dissent for keeping the chain closed another year, an emergency rule to extend the closure would be presented to the Natural Resources Board for approval.
However, if the public disagrees and there is overwhelming demand for the chain to open up in 2020, it would do so under an 18-inch minimum, two fish harvest regulation. But even then another emergency rule could go into place to change that regulation if the chain opens.
“The partner group feels that that may not be the best regulation, so there could potentially be another emergency rule between now and next May to put a different regulation in place that allow some harvest but is restrictive enough that we keep pushing forward the goals of the project,” Vogelsang said.
Those goals of increased densities of adult walleyes and signs of natural reproduction could both benefit from another year of harvest closure, but there is also a side benefit to keeping the chain shut down another year. Lake Tomahawk would be given a chance to be surveyed before it opens for harvest. Only Lake Minocqua and Lake Kawaguesaga were surveyed this past spring.
“We got some really good data collected on those two lakes ,but one of the key items missing from that is Lake Tomahawk,” Vogelsang said. “We’d have a much better picture of knowing what’s going on in Lake Tomahawk starting next spring.”
Vogelsang acknowledged the public has been very patient and supportive of the project and he said this possible extension of the closure will not be an annual event.
“Do it right the first time is kind of our mantra,” Vogelsang said. “We’re not trying to set any precedence with this. The partners feel one additional year is warranted and we’re willing to go along with that. And it certainly doesn’t mean we’re going to pull that card again next year or the year after.”
It’s taken five years of no harvest, by fishing or spearing, to get the walleye population, which was almost depleted on the chain, back up to healthy numbers. Now it is up to the public to decide whether one more year is worth it to get natural reproduction.
Vogelsang is optimistic that the public will be on board.
“There is a fair amount of interest in this project and a lot of support from the community which is great,” Vogelsang said. “They’ve been behind us the whole way.”
At 6 p.m. on Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. at the Woodruff Town Hall the partner group will find out if the public can go just a little bit further with that support and have patience for one more year.
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]