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Leech Lake 2012 Fish Population Outlook
By Doug Schultz
Ten years ago walleye fishing on Leech Lake was tough, even dismal. Ten years ago walleye and yellow perch numbers dipped to near-record lows, few small walleye were caught, and fewer were harvested. But that was ten years ago.
Today walleye abundance in Leech Lake has been above average for six consecutive years. Today all walleye size classes are present and angler catch and harvest rates have returned to their historical levels. Today, the Leech Lake walleye population has fully recovered to its former prominence. In addition to a strong walleye population, annual assessment netting and other survey work completed in 2012 shows quality, healthy populations of northern pike, largemouth bass, and other species frequently pursued by Leech Lake anglers.
Walleye: The 2012 catch of 9.4 walleye/net marks the sixth consecutive year walleye abundance has been above average. Walleye sampled ranged in length from 6 to 27 inches, with about 35% of the net catch being within the current 18-26” protected slot limit. Anglers will be encouraged to hear that an above-average 2010 year class was approaching an average length of 14 inches last fall, meaning these fish will provide significant harvest opportunities over the next three years. Anglers can also expect to see a large number of walleye from 10 to 13 inches over the course of the summer as another good year class was produced during 2011. Creel surveys conducted during 2008-2011 documented an increase in walleye catch rates by walleye anglers while harvest rates remained similar to the pre-regulation era.
Northern pike: The catch rate of northern pike in 2012 was 4.3 fish/net, down slightly from 2011 observations. Pike catch rates have historically ranged from 4 to 6 fish/net with sizes into the mid-30’s commonly observed. Several fish 30 inches and longer were sampled this past year.
Yellow perch: Perch are not only a favorite species for anglers, but are also the primary prey for walleye and northern pike. The perch catch rate of 14.5 fish/net in 2012 is a decline to a near-record low. Causes of this include poor year classes during recent years, high harvest by ice anglers, and high predation by a very strong walleye population. All sizes of perch are still present, and about 20% of perch sampled were 9 inches or longer.
Other species: New survey work conducted in 2012 showed a very high-quality largemouth bass, bluegill, and black crappie populations with bass up to 18 inches, bluegill up to 10 inches, and crappie up to 15 inches sampled. Anglers can find these fish in the vegetated areas of the major bays. Reports from muskie anglers during 2012 were extremely positive. Traditional muskie locations include the cabbage beds in Sucker and Portage bays and the rock structure in the main lake.
Leech Lake is infested with Eurasian watermilfoil and other species, but has yet to be designated infested with zebra mussel or spiny waterflea. All boaters are reminded that they are responsible for stopping the spread of these and other harmful species to new waters. All boaters should thoroughly clean their water-related equipment, drain all water prior to transportation, and allow equipment to dry for at least five days before using again.
The DNR anticipates proposing a modification of the current 18-26” walleye protected slot limit to a 20-26” protected slot limit (bag limit unchanged) for the 2014 season. Goals of this modification include increasing walleye harvest opportunity and reducing predation pressure on yellow perch. This proposal would only move forward pending positive results from the 2013 netting survey and public input. Public comment will be solicited during fall, 2013 and a decision will be made in November. Anglers wishing to comment on this proposal should stay tuned to local media announcements during summer 2013.