How good was fishing Saturday on Upper Red Lake?
So good that each of the 13 people in our group caught a limit of four walleyes. In fact, we didn’t meet anyone who fished the huge northwest Minnesota Lake who didn’t catch a limit — and there were thousands of anglers on the lake.
The question some in our group kicked around Saturday evening while consuming a representative sample of the day’s spoils was whether enough walleyes can exist in Upper Red — or any inland lake — to support the kind of fishing pressure it saw over the weekend.
Given that Upper Red’s walleye harvest this past winter set a record, at 152,000 pounds, the question seemed fair, especially considering that the lake’s walleye limit, at four fish, with one over 17 inches, is relatively liberal.
Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor Gary Barnard says the lake’s four-walleye limit and size restriction are designed to boost anglers’ take from Upper Red.
“Our plan there is to harvest fish,’’ Barnard said, adding that primary contributors to the lake’s abundant walleye population are the 2009 and 2011 year classes. “You can only support so many fish in a lake. We think we can get better walleye production if we reduce the lake’s spawners.’’
By “spawners,’’ Barnard means the number of female walleyes per acre in Upper Red. The “one over 17 inches’’ part of the lake’s harvest limit essentially targets these fish, which typically run larger than males.
Ideally, Barnard said, Upper Red would hold between 2.5 and 4.5 female walleyes per acre. “Currently we’re at about 6,’’ he said.
Red Lake — Upper and Lower — has been gangbusters, generally, for walleyes since its modern-day rebirth sparked by the stocking of millions of walleye fry in the lake in 1999, 2001 and 2003. The effort’s approximate $500,000 cost was shared between the state and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. (The state controls Upper Red, while Lower Red is part of the band’s reservation.)
The challenge for the DNR on Upper Red is to manage for what fisheries officials believe is the lake’s optimum number of female walleyes. Too many spawners can actually stunt overall production by producing too many fry, or baby fish, which then, when they become fingerlings, compete against one another, and fry and older walleyes, for forage.
Excellent opening-weekend action was expected on Upper Red, Barnard said, because the late ice-off, which occurred May 7, guaranteed many of the lake’s walleyes would be in the shallows near shore, where they would be vulnerable to anglers. Also, forage fish are at their lowest levels in spring, so the walleyes were expected to be hungry.