As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded of all the good deeds done by folks who have helped me this year to make Sawyer County one of the best fishing destinations in the country. I cannot possibly thank everyone in this brief column, but I simply must try to acknowledge some of the major contributions of those who cared enough to help.
This has been an especially challenging year for DNR Fisheries staff in Sawyer County, as we tried to maintain key programs in the absence of our long-time Fisheries Biologist, Frank Pratt, who retired in January. With any luck, that position will be refilled in the next few months. Thanks to the dedication and adaptability of DNR Fisheries Technicians Russ Warwick and Joe Krahn, we completed our most important fish survey work. To those of you who lent a hand to Russ and Joe during nighttime electrofishing surveys in the cold and wind, thank you.
Our 2011 field season started with a major operation aimed at estimating the actual number of adult walleyes in the 15,300-acre Chippewa Flowage. This is rarely done anywhere in the country on waters this large, because it takes meticulous planning, lots of people, and cooperative weather over a two-week period in early spring. But DNR crews from Hayward, Park Falls, Mercer, Spooner, and Madison pulled it off. We thank Treland Resorts for providing great accommodations and access for our out-of-town staff and equipment. We also thank Deer Run and Deerfoot resorts for providing convenient points of access for work crews. We thank our partners with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission for their able assistance. And we thank those tribal spearers who exercised the courtesy and patience to go around our fyke nets rather than through them when engaged in their annual harvest ritual. Thanks to these cooperative efforts, we estimated with great confidence there were 3.1 adult walleyes per acre in the Chippewa Flowage in April 2011, down from 5.2 per acre in 1999. More than half were big, old females, reflecting below normal survival of young walleyes since 2007.
In addition to accurate information about the relative number and size of fish in our waters, we sometimes need to know how old they are and how fast they are growing. Rapid advances in fish aging technology have rendered traditional methods obsolete, so we needed some new equipment and software in order to bring the best possible science to our management efforts. Thanks to two generous $600 donations from Walleyes for Northwest Wisconsin and the Chippewa Flowage Area Property Owners Association, we now have a fast new laptop computer to process images of fish scales, spines, and otoliths (ear bones) generated by an expensive stereomicroscope and state-of-the-art software purchased by DNR last year. We are now one of only three units in the State with this improved capacity to accurately age fish (by counting the rings on highly magnified images of bony structures) and analyze the information. I especially thank Rick Marks, who helped to coordinate this gift as a member of both donor organizations.
It is also nice to know you can count on friends to help during emergencies. Such was the case last spring when large adult walleyes seeking flowing water (to spawn) left Black Dan Lake through an overflow culvert and became trapped in the tiny creek below. It was Easter Sunday when Joe Krahn and I rescued 17 big fish in the creek before heading to the Chippewa Flowage to finish processing walleyes in ten fyke nets before dark. But we knew more fish were trapped. That’s when Steve Hawthorn, President of Walleyes for Northwest Wisconsin, contacted our friends Tom High and Jim Genrich in the Winter Lakes Alliance. The next day, Jim locked down the culvert fish barrier and had his road crew and other volunteers make several arduous treks up a steep embankment to return dozens of monster walleyes to Black Dan Lake before they perished in the trickle of a stream below. Wow. Thanks guys!
Reduced survival of young walleyes in area lakes has become a major concern. Walleye spawning habitat is still very good in most of these lakes, so the problem is survival of young fish once hatched. Largemouth bass in increasing numbers may be eating or competing for prey with little walleyes, so we must improve our understanding of bass recruitment. Lake association officials at Teal Lake (John Gouze) and Big Sissabagama Lake (Bob Hanson) cooperated this past summer in a University of Wisconsin study of potential temperature effects on bass reproduction by deploying continuous temperature loggers at their docks. Researchers will download this information and begin to analyze the conditions under which largemouth bass do or do not survive their first year.
One way to begin addressing the walleye recruitment issue in Sawyer County is to selectively increase the harvest of potential predators and competitors like largemouth bass and northern pike. This was the first year anglers could legally harvest largemouth bass of any size in Whitefish Lake, Big Sissabagama Lake, and the Chippewa Flowage – all waters where we have serious concerns about low walleye recruitment. Thanks to everyone who did their civic duty by harvesting some of the overabundant but delicious largemouth bass and northern pike on those lakes. And thanks in particular to organizers of the Big Chip Fish Fest, who once again raised tens of thousands of dollars for stocking large walleye fingerlings by hosting a world-class educational event in June at The Landing, where anglers, guides, and the general public could share a delicious meal of angler-donated largemouth bass or northern pike. There are too many people to thank individually, but you know who you are!
Special thanks to the Lake Chippewa Flowage Resort Association, who funded the printing of color flyers to help anglers distinguish between largemouth bass (no size limit) and smallmouth bass (14-inch minimum length limit) on the Chippewa Flowage in 2011. Flyers were posted at landings, resorts, and bait shops. DNR creel survey clerks and wardens did not record a single case of mistaken identity (smallmouth bass taken for a largemouth bass) this year, so now we know the two species can be managed differently in the same body of water. Smallmouth bass are compatible with walleyes and should be managed to their fullest potential to provide exciting catch-and-release fishing.
Another key to restoring some of our walleye fisheries is to stock walleyes large enough to evade predation by largemouth bass, northern pike, and even cannibalistic older walleyes. We refer to 6-8 inch walleyes stocked in the fall as extended-growth walleyes, because their growth has been extended in a hatchery all summer. These fish have a much greater chance of surviving to adulthood than those stocked at only 1-2 inches in late spring.
Because the 2011 hatchery production season was better than expected, DNR was able to stock extended-growth walleye fingerlings in the following Sawyer County lakes this fall: Blueberry Lake (1,400), Lost Land Lake (2,500), Teal Lake (4,795), and Big Sissabagama Lake (4,151). On the private market, these fish would cost approximately $1.60 each. That makes the contributions of our partners seem even more significant. The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe stocked a grand total of 18,153 extended-growth walleye fingerlings into Sawyer County Lakes (and Stone Lake in Washburn County) in 2011. Of those, 8,559 were stocked to boost lackluster natural recruitment of walleye in the Chippewa Flowage, and another 3,141 were stocked into Whitefish Lake where we hope to return dominance to walleye over largemouth bass.
I also received and gratefully approved private fish stocking permit applications from several lake association representatives who are working with us to restore or enhance walleye fisheries in Sawyer County waters. As of November 8, I received reports of private fall stockings of extended-growth walleye fingerlings into the following waters: Big Chetac Lake (5,000), Whitefish Lake (2,500 in addition to those stocked by the LCO Band), Spider Lake (4,000), Barber Lake (1,125), Island Lake (300), Winter Lake (750), Black Dan Lake (825), the Chippewa Flowage (20,000 in addition to those stocked by the LCO Band), Perch Lake (570), Lake Placid (160), Tiger Cat Flowage (224), and Upper Twin Lake on the Tiger Cat Chain (178). In many cases, Walleyes for Northwest Wisconsin cost-shared on a 50:50 basis with local lake associations to make these stockings possible. The annual WFNW ice fishing fund-raiser on Lac Courte Oreilles is vital to the success of these private partner walleye stockings, so please get out and support that event next February.
Last, but not least, I want to thank the Hayward Lakes Chapter of Muskies, Inc. for their continued work to expose young anglers to the thrill of fishing, and for working with me to stock 1,500 quality muskie fingerlings into Big Round Lake this fall.
I am very fortunate to work in an area where the quality of fishing reflects the quality of living, and where so many people recognize its importance and are willing to work cooperatively to make it happen. For me, it is truly a time of Thanksgiving.