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Scott M

Where are the little walleyes on Sag?

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Saw this in Sunday's Duluth News Trib.

by Sam Cook

Most anglers know Saganaga Lake is a good place to catch big walleyes. But those who fish the lake frequently have a concern: Where are the small walleyes on Sag?

Fisheries biologists are reviewing their management plans for the big lake northwest of Grand Marais and want to know what’s on anglers’ minds. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will hold two meetings this month to gather input from anglers about the state of Saganaga’s walleye fishery.

The DNR is willing to consider changing fishing regulations on Saganaga, possibly by introducing a 17-inch minimum size limit for walleyes on the lake, said Steve Persons, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Marais.

“A lot depends on what anglers are willing to pursue there,” Persons said.

Currently, the only special regulation for walleyes on the Minnesota side of Saganaga is that anglers may keep only one over 19.5 inches in a limit of six fish. On the Ontario side, anglers may keep four walleyes, with only one longer than 18.1 inches (46 centimeters).

Anglers have been talking about the apparent lack of small walleyes on Sag for the past three or four years.

“Definitely, something has happened,” said Bob Baker, owner of Gunflint Pines Resort on Gunflint Lake and a regular Sag angler. “Years past, shoot, you could go out in September and see all the fish you wanted to on a graph. And those were the 13- to 20-inch fish. Nowadays, you have to hunt from spot to spot to spot to find any kind of group of fish.”

Fishing guide Mike Berg said smaller walleyes have been harder to find, but there are some around.

“I think their patterns have changed because of low water,” Berg said, “but I also think the population is down.”

In his August and September fishing, Berg has found smaller walleyes, but not as many as he once did.

“When the fish are deeper, we’re finding the small ones. You’re not catching 100 fish like you used to,” Berg said. “We’re catching everything from the 10s (10-inchers) to 20s. To me, it looks like a lot of year classes but not a lot of any one.”

Baker said he and other anglers have discussed many possible theories for the small-walleye decline.

“Is it because of the spiny water flea [an exotic species discovered in Saganaga in 2003]?” he said. “Or [low] water levels? Or because of the abundance of smallmouth in there? Are they eating all the fry? Did the walleyes have a couple of bad years of spawning? It could be all of those things put together.”

Persons also alluded to low water levels, which Sag has seen for the past several years.

“It could account for a lack of spawning success,” Persons said. “That’s over now. The lake is up significantly.”

Baker said he would support a 17-inch minimum size limit.

“That would be a great place to start,” he said. “A lot of guys try to throw those fish back anyway.”

Berg isn’t so sure, however. He’s concerned about the spin-off from what might be perceived as negative media attention on the popular lake.

“Is that going to cut down the number of people coming to Sag?” he asked. “And the Canadians aren’t going to put a 17-inch minimum on. What good is it going to do to have the 17-inch limit … unless it can be the whole lake?”

Although Persons agrees that not many small walleyes are being caught on Sag lately, he isn’t concerned about the future viability of the lake’s walleye population.

“I have a real hard time thinking that in the long run Sag is in serious trouble,” he said. “It’s a big lake, and for its size, it isn’t fished that hard. The fact that we’ve been able to sustain the trophy fishery tells me that the basics for the lake are still there.”

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All the static about not catching those eaters must be catching up to the DNR. I can usually scratch out some fish on Seagull and Gull, but on the big lake I haven't had very good luck lately. Big Walleyes seem to be what people catch if they get any. Trouble is its such a big lake to survey that getting an idea of population size and whether or not an age class is missing is hard to nail down.

I'm sure they will be having hearings shortly. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Get Canada on board and maybe you have something.

I think its just the ebbs and flows of the whims of nature. Lots of variation in a system that big, and with such little fishing pressure I wouldn't place any blame on "guides going to the same spots and fishing the lake out" like I overheard one member of my in-laws saying. Fishing has next to nothing to do with it if there is in fact a shortage of small fish.

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Saw this same scenario on Northern Light Lake (Ontario) which dumps into Sag over the past four years. Many had their theories about the cause, but what we noticed most was the abundance of bait in the lake over this same period of time as well as the increase in the smallmouth population. The smaller walleyes that we did stumble upon over this time period were very stocky fish, nice filets off the smaller fish.

The good news is that later this past year, the smaller fish were more abundent. Found countless 16 - 17" fish in the deeper flats 30 - 40', the best fishing we've seen in many years. Some old-timers on Northern Light say the lake cycles every ten years or so, with 3 - 4 year periods of slow walleye fishing.

Our hopes from what we saw late in August and early in September are that we are coming out of this slow period and looking towards several years of good fishing for walleyes.

gonorth

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Considering the low amount of fishing pressure and a host of variables that could be, imposing a 17" slot is jumping the gun.

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