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Conversation with MN DNR-International Falls-fisheries on health of walleyes in Kabetogama/Namakan...and more!

If you did not know this...I'm a bit of a fishing nerd. I love fishing (and fish), i watch fishing programs, I love to read fishing stories and data, and I love gathering data from the experts. My college degree is in "fish/wildlife management from the University of Minnesota. Over the past 25 years of guiding and being on Kabetogama for nearly 30 years (summers) I have gotten to know some the the MN DNR specialists. My conversation was with Ben Vondra, MN DNR international falls fisheries Our page:

I asked: Can you tell me how the 2023 netting or fish survey's went and the general "health" of our system on Kabetogama and Namakan?

(Ben Vondra) I have not finalized my report from 2023, but I can give you a quick summary of our findings. Our overall walleye gill net catch rate on Kabetogama was nearly identical to 2022 at 8.2 per gill net, which is slightly less than the long-term median (8.85/net). We continue to see very good numbers of fish from the strong 2020 year-class. These fish ranged in length from 8.5 to 16.0 inches and averaged 12.8 inches long in fall 2023. However, the majority of walleyes from the 2023 year-class were in the 11, 12 and 13 inch length groups. The 2015 and 2016 year-classes were the most recent strong year-classes prior to the 2020 year-class and most individuals from these back-to-back year-classes have now grown into the protected slot. Most individuals from the 2015-16 year-classes were in the 19 and 20 inch length groups in fall 2023.

With the 2015-16 year-classes growing into the protected slot and the 2020 year-class not quite into the larger harvestable sizes, we saw below average numbers of 14-18" walleyes in 2023 netting. However, the 2020 year-class appears pretty strong, and I expect to see a lot more 14- 16" walleyes at the end of 2024 and into 2025 as those fish continue to grow.

Overall, Sauger numbers in Kab were similar to 2022 with 3.11 caught per gill net in fall 2023. Kab appears to have produced a strong year-class of Sauger in 2020 with most individuals in the 10 and 11 inch length groups in 2023 netting. We also saw good numbers of 15" sauger in our gill nets in 2023.

What about Namakan?

The overall walleye catch rate on Namakan Lake was 5.75 per gill net. This is lower than 2022 (7.85/net) and lower than the long-term average. Namakan has been seeing a pattern of few strong or weak year-classes since the strong-2011 and 2012 year-classes. However, 2020 and 2022 each appear to be weak and likely contributed to the lower catch rate in 2023.

Rainy saw a similar pattern of recruitment during this time period but now appears to have a very strong 2021 year-class coming up. The 2021 year-class appears slightly above average on Namakan and averaged 9.4 inches long from the fall 2023 survey.

Overall, we saw good numbers of fish in the 7, 12 and 20 inch length groups and average numbers in the 17 and 18 inch length groups. Feel free to reach out with any other questions.

So I asked, "has the "slot" shown to have increased the size of the walleyes in our basin"?

Reply: I’m not sure I fully understand the question, but I’ll take a crack at it. I think it’s safe to say that the slot limit has increased the number of larger fish we see in our sampling, at least up to 25 inches. Our gear does not effectively catch walleyes over 25 inches because our largest gill net mesh size on our standard gear is only 2 inch diameter (2x2” squares). So based on our sampling alone, I can’t really say that the regulation now produces more 25”+ walleyes than in the past. Anecdotally, I have heard from anglers etc. that they think they encounter more 25”+ fish now than they did in the past, and I think it is reasonable to assume that is the case. You may or may not remember, but prior to 2006 the walleye regulation was a harvest slot of 13-17

inches with one fish over 23” allowed in the bag. That regulation was less than 20 years ago and likely affected the numbers of 25”+ fish in the lake.

He reminded me:

Walleye will continue to grow once they reach the slot, but growth slows considerably when they reach sexual maturity and energy goes towards reproduction. Growth is also different between males and females. Male growth is much slower than females after they reach maturity and most of the large fish you see (greater than 25 inches) are likely females. I see males in Rainy that are 20” long and 20-21 years old!

At the individual fish level growth is highly variable for various environmental and genetic reasons. We also catch fewer large fish in our sampling gear as they get to sizes that are no longer effectively sampled and because there are fewer of them around due to mortality. Therefore, our data gets messier when looking at larger sizes and it’s harder to see the year-classes continuing to move into the larger size classes year over year. Hopefully that makes sense. I.e. It’s harder to track the fish in our data in the example you posed below (I guess what I mean is that if a lot of our “slot fish” have been 19-21”, does that trend continue now 2-3 years later we are seeing many 23-25” fish?). However, it’s reasonable to assume that as those year classes reach the slot they will continue to grow and there would be more fish in those larger sizes as they continue to grow.

How are theYellow Perch in Kabetogama (I think we have seen an uptick)

Perch numbers were still above average at 8.75 per gill net in 2023 but lower than the past 2 surveys (16.8/net in 2022). 2020 appeared to have produced a lot of perch and they were again caught in very high numbers for age 3. They were caught in much higher numbers as age 1 and 2 and that was driving those really high overall catch rates in the past 2 surveys. Most of these fish were in the 7” length group but ranged from 6.2 to 10.1 inches with an average of 7.6 inches.

If anyone is interested in knowing more:

Contact: MN DNR and/or list the info as coming from the International Falls Area DNR Fisheries office if anyone wants to follow up directly with us.

As always, I will keep learning, searching, and enjoying bringing Lake Kabetogama information to you...

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