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Thirtysecond Annual Woman Lake Walleye
Spring Fishing Trip

Woman Lake Chronicles – Part XIV
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Thursday, May 23, 2013

So that was our 32nd spring walleye trip. And for me, it ended as it began: Going home I forgot my battery charger at the cabin, just as I forgot my depth finder going north last week. Unlike the previous, this time I remembered only when I got home so no going back. I’ll probably end up buying another one — my battery charger was around twenty years old and I should really get a more modern one anyway.

This year was actually quite trouble free, except for the memory issues. You may recall some other years we had no end of car problems, lower unit problems, battery problems, etc. Not this year, it all went smoothly, no hassles at all. So that meant more time for fishing, not that it did any good.

[Editor's Note: Actually commuting from Girl Lake to/from Leech Lake consumed more time and because we were lazy as the return times indicate (Thurs 10am, Fri 10am, Sat 11am) we spent less time fishing than usual completely missing the morning of May 19th as well as the afternoon – Total fishing time for Saturday was approx. 4hrs. The older we get the worse it gets – not that it really matters, after all it's the comradery]

Let me comment on that. [Editor's Note: Please do!] This year, despite the extremely late ice out, we fished pretty much as always [Editor's Note: except time on the water, which the most critical factor]– Lindy Rigs, shiner minnows, 12–15 foot depths, Gold Coast, all that. And of course we didn’t catch many fish. But I got some reports from other fishermen on other lakes, with the same ice out situation. They caught a fair number of walleyes fishing in shallow water, less than six feet, up against rocky shorelines.

The lesson is that we should have abandoned our standard fishing techniques and experimented with everything in our tackle boxes until we found fish under the given lake conditions. Next year we’ll be more adventurous.

On a different note, I believe we have a unique set of fishing data spanning our three decades of walleye trips. I spent the two days after we closed the cabin up at Jerry's house on Leech Lake working on the Woman Lake statistics over the years and Jerry caught up on the Fishing Memories web site. Lots to do in both cases.

The two charts here show results for the last twenty-two years, since 1992. Back then we started keeping detailed stats on numbers and lengths of fish

Graph illustrating
 walleyes versus northern caught Length distribution per year from 1992 to 2013

 

First, take a look at the distribution of lengths for the 1062 walleyes and 585 northerns we’ve caught and released over the last couple of decades. The walleyes have averaged around 14–inches, and the northerns around 21–inches. Our biggest walleye is only 27–1/2 inches and Jerry caught a 38–1/2 inch northern in 1999, by far the biggest. So the fish that we catch don’t run to enormous sizes.

 

Graph illustrating
 number of walleyes versus northern caught per year from 1992 to 2013

 

The second chart shows the numbers of fish we catch per person each year, and that’s more interesting. First, the walleyes: We were consistently catching over 2.5 walleyes per person on a daily basis in the 1990’s. But then around 2000 the catch rates plummeted and have not returned to those earlier levels. This year’s trip was the worst ever with an average of less than half a walleye caught per person per day.

So why is that? Well, one thing we have observed over the years is that Woman Lake has been a “meat” lake. We of course release every walleye we catch, but we have never, in 32 years, observed anybody else release even one walleye. So a caught fish is a dead fish unless it’s lucky enough to be caught by one of us. Given the numbers of people that fished Woman Lake, the “catch and kill” mentality has to be a factor.

Another possibility: Jerry says that the Woman Lake Association stopped stocking yearling walleyes some time ago (2000?) due to problems with rearing ponds, and the lack of stocking clearly must have had an impact.

Finally, the rusty crayfish came into Woman Lake sometime in the last five or ten years and that also must be a factor.

So our guess is that some combination of these things have hurt the walleye numbers on the lake. If any of you have some ideas on all this, we would appreciate your thoughts.

Note that the catch rates for northern pike have also bounced around but show no consistent decline. For northerns, stocking is not an issue, and perhaps they aren’t caught and killed like walleyes are. And the crayfish? Don’t know. In any case, our northern results are much more stable than those for walleyes.

This terrible success this year, the worst ever as I noted, was certainly due in great part to the extremely late ice out and cold water and our incompetence in how we went about fishing. Hopefully it won’t be like that next year and we cheerfully expect the fish to once again jump in our boats.

Okay, so much for that.

The following is a response from Doug Schultz, Walker Area Fisheries Supervisor, MNR.

Fry stocking rates in Woman Lake peaked during 2004-2006 (Figure 1; 9-10 million/year).  This was obviously disproportionate with the number of eggs we were removing via the Boy River trap that would’ve hatched in the lake otherwise, and was the impetus behind the fry put-back study started in 2006.  By marking fry with OTC, what both Leech Lake and Woman Lake stockings have shown us over the past ten years is lower recruitment (survival of young fish to catchable sizes) as the number of fry stocked increases.  The tradeoff has been slower growth and poorer survival because not enough food is available, and this pattern has been fairly consistent across lakes.  The poorer fishing you experienced during the late 2000’s was the result of those high stockings in Woman Lake translating to weak year classes – the 2004 fish would’ve been about 14” in 2008. 

Similarly, the poor fishing during the early 2000’s was also the product of weaker year classes (Figure 2; index of recruitment, or the relative number of fish surviving to catchable sizes from a year class) moving through the size classes anglers look for.  Co-op fingerling stockings were conducted annually until 1998 and the amounts stocked were much lower than DNR’s standard fingerling stocking rate (1,000 lbs/LA/alternate years).  Near the end, fingerlings were marked with fin clips prior to stocking and, by sampling for young-of-year (YOY) fish following stocking, it was determined that the contribution was near zero, which is why the program was discontinued.  Despite all of this, fry stockings were still in the 4-5 million range each year and growth was still poor (see Figure 3, electrofishing catch rates of fingerlings 5.5” or longer), but not as bad as we made it in the mid-2000s.  More recently we’ve been stocking lower densities (approximately 1 million fry/year) and have been seeing better growth and recruitment (see 2010 and 2011 year classes in Figures 2 and 3), meaning we’re doing a better job at giving small walleyes a chance to survive to catchable sizes, which is the true intent of any stocking program.

 

Figure 1.—The number of fry that would have hatched naturally in Woman Lake from eggs removed at the Boy River stripping station from 1993 to 2012 compared to the number of fry stocked into Woman Lake.  Lost fry production for 2007-2012 was calculated by applying the annual, lake-wide hatch rates (actually a combination of egg deposition, fertilization and hatch rates) to the number of eggs collected at the stripping station.  Lost fry production for previous years was calculated by applying the highest observed annual, lake-wide hatch rate (1.01%) to the number of eggs collected at the stripping station.

Figure 2. —Relative strength of the 1987-2012 year-classes of walleye in Woman Lake. 
Dashed lines indicate inter-quartile ranges (middle 50%).

Figure 3.—Fall electrofishing catch rates of YOY walleyes greater than 5.5 inches in Woman Lake.
Dashed line indicates 25th percentile.

 

I, the keeper of the web and Garlic and spice, would like to thank Doug Schultz for his contribution which sheds new light on the interpretation of our statistics.


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Date Created: May 25, 2013
Last Modified: May 29, 2013
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