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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Red Lake Recovery
Red Lake Walleye Harvest, Population Look Good
by Brad Dokken - Grand Forks (ND) Herald
Walleye harvests on state and tribal waters of Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake gradually are moving toward safe-target levels, but there's still plenty of room to take more fish, and populations are looking good, managers say.

As they do twice a year, members of the Red Lake Technical Committee met earlier this month to talk about the big lake's continued recovery and how it's proceeding in state and tribal waters. The technical committee includes representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource and the Red Lake tribal DNR, along with others with an interest in the fishery.

The consensus last week: So far, so good.

"Things are rolling along well with the population," said Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji.

According to Barnard, the annual "safe harvest" level — the amount of walleyes that can be kept without hurting the population — is 820,000 pounds in tribal waters and 168,000 pounds on the state's share of Upper Red Lake.

That works out to 3½ pounds of walleyes per acre.

This year, Barnard said, anglers in state waters will keep about 147,000 pounds of walleyes — 88 percent of its safe harvest. Pat Brown, tribal biologist for the Red Lake DNR, said the band this year will keep about 630,000 pounds of walleyes, which is 71 percent of its safe harvest.

"We're gradually ramping up — that's a good thing," Brown said. "There's room for growth, but we're taking it slowly."

Key factors
There are a couple of reasons for the increased walleye take. In state waters, the DNR has increased the walleye limit from two when fishing resumed in May 2006 to a four-fish bag this year. And this past summer, for the first time since fishing reopened, the DNR in mid-June began allowing anglers to keep walleyes from 17 inches to 20 inches in length and one trophy fish longer than 26 inches.

Previously, anglers had to release all walleyes from 17 inches to 26 inches with one trophy allowed in the bag.

Meanwhile, in tribal waters, Brown of the Red Lake DNR said the band's fish-processing plant this summer hired two netting crews to catch walleyes and keep the facility running later in the summer, when hook-and-line fishing success generally slows.

Tribal members other than netting crews are allowed to fish only with hook-and-line, both for subsistence and to provide walleyes for the fish-processing plant.

Brown said the netting crews contributed about 200,000 pounds to this year's tribal harvest. He said the fish plant might hire a third netting crew to supplement the harvest next summer.

Tribal members fishing hook-and-line generally have their best luck through the ice in late March and early April. This past year, for example, Brown said the harvest was more than 250,000 pounds just in that two- to three-week period.

According to Barnard, fisheries managers are hoping the increased walleye take improves growth rates, which lagged when populations were denser. He said the abundance of spawning-class walleyes has declined a bit, which is to be expected with the increased harvest, but still falls within the "optimum" range.

The story is similar in tribal waters.

"We're not seeing a lot of big fish over 20 inches, but we're seeing a lot of young fish, which is good news," Brown said.

What's ahead
Because so much of Upper Red's fishing pressure occurs in the winter, the 17- to 26-inch protected slot in state waters went back into effect Dec. 1. Anglers last winter logged about 700,000 hours of fishing pressure on Upper Red, Barnard said, compared with 209,000 hours during the open-water period.

Barnard said the DNR will wait until after fishing season ends in late February to decide whether to relax the protected slot and let anglers keep 17- to 20-inch walleyes for the second half of next summer.

"We're hoping we can do that again," he said. "I know it was very popular with the anglers and businesses up there. We're taking a different approach this year, and we're going to wait until the winter harvest is complete to set summer regulations. We're inching close to the upper edge of that (harvest) range."

As the state nears its harvest goals, Brown said the band also intends to stay within its limits to keep the walleye population on track and avoid a repeat of the collapse that crippled both sides of the lake before the state and the band signed a recovery agreement in 1999.

"We have a threshold, and if we get close to 1 million pounds, we'll shut it down," he said.

Difficult as that would be, it illustrates the challenge managers face on both sides of the lake as demand for the resource grows.

"It's been easy here since the opener in 2006, since we haven't been close to target," Barnard said. "But the closer we get, the more refined we have to get and the more regulation we have to do.

"It's not like it's going to get easier — it will get more difficult."

Red Lake is comprised of two connected basins. All 152,000 acres of Lower Red Lake and all but 48,000 acres of 108,000-acre Upper Red Lake lie within the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

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