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Wisconsin Walleyes: Whispers And Wants

Wisconsin Walleyes: Whispers And Wants

Fisheries managers and resources combine to sustain and improve Badger State walleye fisheries. (March 2008).

Photo by Ted Peck.

The walleye is the reigning champion as the most popular fish in Wisconsin, based on a 2001 angling survey. Although the final tally of last year's survey is not available yet, Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor Mike Staggs said it would likely remain our state's most popular fish.

According to DNR data, 22.76 percent of anglers and 26.25 percent of all trips are spent chasing walleyes, compared with 15 percent for bass, 10 to 12 percent for bluegills, 4 percent for trout and only 3 to 5 percent for our state fish, the muskie.


The survey said walleyes represented only 10.9 percent of all fish caught and only 6.9 percent of all fish harvested, compared with 80 percent of panfish being released into hot grease.


Still, more walleyes find their way into a sandwich than bass with 4.3 percent harvested or muskies with 0.1 percent taken from the water.

The 2001 survey indicated Wisconsin anglers caught more than 69 million fish that year, keeping about 31 million. About 7.5 million were walleyes with more than 2 million ending up on the wall or dinner plate.


"I believe walleye fishing is very good in Wisconsin," Staggs said. "We stock 2 to 3 million little walleyes annually to maintain fisheries that have little or no natural reproduction, but the vast majority of walleyes are from natural, self-propagating strains."


According to Staggs, the biggest challenges faced by the DNR regarding walleyes are the scope and potential effect of viral hemorrhagic septicemia or VHS, a particularly lethal viral disease and development of trophy walleye fisheries."Walleyes are a very popular eating fish, so we haven't had much success convincing folks to voluntarily release walleyes to grow to trophy dimensions" he said.

"However, several fisheries, like most of the Wisconsin River system, have a slot limit in place protecting walleyes from 20 to 28 inches. These harvest restrictions may lead to establishment of the Wisconsin River system as a trophy walleye fishery, but it will take five to 10 years before we know for sure."

River systems are notoriously tough to monitor scientifically in order to predict trends. Last year, a 28-inch slot went into effect on Escanaba Lake in Vilas County as a control experiment.

"It will take five to 10 years to see if there is a demand for this type of fishery," Staggs said. "If this turns out to be the case, we may change management guidelines elsewhere."

There are countless places across the state where a lucky angler may stumble into a 30-inch walleye that is generally considered a trophy benchmark. Only one fishery, Green Bay, is currently generating walleyes of dreadnaught dimensions on a regular basis.

Your best chances of catching a trophy walleye here are in early April when the spring run is at its peak. Fewer anglers congregate at the bay's confluence with the Menominee River that borders Michigan about an hour's drive north.

A great deal of credit for continued excellence on Green Bay goes to Walleyes For Tomorrow, which has 16 chapters across the state.

"Everybody seems to like what we are doing," state WFT chairman Chris Arrowood said. "We have meetings, ask questions, size up a potential project and get it done with as little delay as possible. That's what we're all about -- clear, concise vision and no-nonsense project implementation."

WFT is similar to Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, holding annual fundraising dinners and similar events. Arrowood said 10 percent of funds raised remain with local chapters to use at their own discretion, and 90 percent deposited in the organization's general fund for project expenses.

Walleyes For Tomorrow's influence on Red Cedar and Rice lakes is impressive. Their work on the Winnebago chain is thrilling and the return of walleyes in both size and numbers in Green Bay is heartwarming.

Thirty years ago, Sturgeon Bay was the place to be on a windy September night trolling No. 18 chrome and blue Rapalas behind the boat.

Back in the days when a 25-horsepower outboard and a boat with bench seats were state-of-the-art tools, many trophy walleyes were led to the net.

The big walleye fishery went down the tubes around 1980, but thanks to Walleyes For Tomorrow, it's back big time.

Arrowood said Walleyes For Tomorrow focuses on creating new habitat, rehabilitating existing habitat and stocking programs.

There are two different goals in new habitat creation. One path calls for dumping various sizes of stone on a lake's bottom to provide habitat for forage like crayfish, snails and small baitfish.

The other path requires creating new spawning sites where none previously existed, a process involving placement of rocky/rubble bottom at locations where walleyes may be encouraged to spawn.

The rehabilitation portion of WFT's mission statement also has two courses -- correcting damage done by past human activities and reclaiming habitat that has deteriorated due to natural means.

Many walleyes swimming in the Winnebago system are there because of the work WTF did in the Wolf and Fox rivers and the grassy marshes at the upper end of lakes in the Winnebago chain.

For years, current flowing into these vital spawning marshes was stymied by siltation that increased because of fallen trees and growth of woody vegetation.

WTF members did extensive mowing, deadfall removal and similar work to get the water flowing again.

Walleyes For Tomorrow works in close concert with the DNR in stocking fingerlings and fry in waters where natural reproduction is limited or nonexistent.

"The DNR won't let us stock lakes where walleye populations have successful spawns," Arrowood said. "We try to focus on habitat on these waters."

Arrowood said WFT stocks fry from portable hatcheries they own.

"In 2006, we stocked fry at Sturgeon Bay, Lake Puckaway, Winnebago and in the Chetek chain," he said. "A new hatche

ry was built for stocking fish in the Wausau area. It is now coming online."

A major focus in 2008 and years to come is stocking walleyes in the Milwaukee River. WTF has given the DNR funding to raise fry and fingerlings for reintroduction there for the past three years.

"By 2010, anglers fishing the Milwaukee River may once again find success on walleyes like their fathers and grandfathers did," Arrowood said. "Because walleyes once swam there, the DNR is doing the stocking there."

It may take several years before we see a resurgence of a trophy walleye fishery on the Wisconsin River system.

If there is a glaring example of bureaucracy trumping common sense regarding fisheries in America's Dairyland, it is about saugers on the lower Wisconsin River.

This walleye cousin with the desert camo paint job falls under the slot limit rules in place on the river. A number of saugers that were swimming when slot rules went into effect several years ago are reaching the upper limits of their growth potential -- around 25 to 26 inches long.

"Saugers in Wisconsin simply don't grow to 28 inches," said fisheries manager Tim Larson, who is tasked with managing waters around Lake Wisconsin. "State-record saugers are swimming here now, but anglers aren't allowed to keep them because of the slot limit."Staggs said, "We believe that separate rules for walleyes and saugers will create too much 'mistake' harvests, so we haven't come up with a workable solution for this problem. If somebody has a better idea, we'd be happy to consider it. As things stand now, the slot will remain in force for both walleyes and saugers on the Wisconsin River system for several more years.

"I believe the solution to preventing mistake harvests is not only present -- it's been around for 100 years. A DNR entity called the game warden is out there to ensure a short learning curve regarding species identification.

"Do you think many upland hunters tuck hen pheasants in their game bag believing these birds to be grouse? Those who can't tell a sauger from a walleye can tell it to the judge. Those who can should be able to take their trophy to a taxidermist."

A further caveat is the skunky "paper" taste of walleyes and saugers from some parts of the Wisconsin River system. Fish near the 15-inch minimum length are palatable, but essentially anything in the protected slot length range -- and at least a couple inches shorter -- are tough to swallow.

Still, Staggs said there is "a high exploitation rate of walleyes once they reach the 15-inch minimum, meaning few walleyes will reach the 28-inch minimum except in years of really good reproduction."

"Lately, we're hearing from anglers who are dissatisfied with the large number of 14-inch walleyes and relative paucity of 'keeper' walleyes in the system," he continued. "This is one reason why the sunset on the slot limit in the Wisconsin River system has been extended. The situation clearly needs more study."

The Rock River depends primarily on natural reproduction to maintain its walleye population. Natural reproduction on riverine ecosystems is driven by a great extent to river levels and current flow before, during and after spawning occurs.

Lake Koshkonong is the crown jewel of this system. The 10,400-acre shallow basin lake is now in a state of "nearly perfect balance," according to fisheries manager Don Bush.

"We've had a couple of years where river levels stayed high well into the summer," he said. "These conditions gave little walleyes a place to hide back in the weeds. They also provide optimum forage base conditions for growth."

Walleye and sauger numbers in the Rock are augmented by production from the Bark River hatchery, a converted sewage disposal plant that is the site of a grass roots conservation movement not unlike the work done by WFT.

The Mississippi River rivals the Winnebago system for the walleye factory title in this state. Our western border's natural production is augmented by fingerlings from the federal hatchery facility at Genoa.

Last year, Wisconsin fisheries refused to accept any eggs or progeny from this federal facility, although the broodstock was tested three times. The reason for the refusal was to enable the WDNR to establish a baseline on VHS proliferation in the state.

"About 10 percent of walleyes netted and used for walleye propagation at the Genoa facility go back into the Mississippi River," according to hatchery manager Doug Aliosi.

Aliosi said waters in Minnesota and Iowa received their annual allotment of fingerlings in spite of last year's VHS scare.

"Sport-fishing is an important part of our culture and economy in Wisconsin," Stagg said. "The DNR will do whatever it takes to protect our fisheries resource now and in the future to ensure Wisconsin anglers enjoy continued success on that popular fish . . . the walleye."

For more information, visit the Department of Natural Resources Web site at http://dnr.wi.gov/fish. Contact Walleyes for Tomorrow at (920) 922-0905 or visit its Web site at www.walleyesfortomorrow.org

Find more about Wisconsinfishing and hunting at:WisconsinSportsmanMag

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