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Doug Smith, Star Tribune

Last update: March 01, 2006 – 12:58 AM

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Leech Lake timeline

Outdoors

Leech Lake walleye restocking: Biology or politics?

Just a year ago, as part of a plan to deal with a dearth of walleyes on Leech Lake, the Department of Natural Resources proposed stocking 5 million walleye fry as an experiment.

The DNR was reluctant to do even the small stocking because Leech is considered a classic natural walleye lake that doesn't need to be stocked.

Fast-forward to this year: After a full-court press by a vocal group of Leech Lake area residents, business owners and legislators, the DNR has agreed to stock up to 23 million walleye fry in Leech this spring -- quadruple the amount originally proposed by DNR fisheries biologists.

What happened?

Has DNR forsaken science for public or political goodwill? Have officials simply bowed to public or political pressure?

DNR managers say no.

"Clearly there's been a concerted effort we've made over the past three years to engage and connect with stakeholders," said DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam. "But we're not asking anyone to discard good science."

But some, both inside and outside the agency, are concerned that science increasingly may be taking a back seat to politics.

And one legislator -- Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker -- said he forced the DNR's hand by threatening to introduce legislation mandating increased walleye stocking on Leech Lake.

"I told them that you have your science and science is good, but we're at a point that politics is going to win," Howes said. He said he doesn't believe the DNR is forsaking science in the stocking plan but instead is responding as it should to public demands.

"I think they did a good job. The bottom line is the DNR works for the taxpayers," Howes said. "They're responding [to the public] a whole lot better than they used to."

Agency officials, while acknowledging they have changed their positions on Leech Lake drastically in recent months, say they tried to reach consensus with local residents on increased walleye stocking without hurting the lake or threatening its management by science.

Ron Payer, DNR fisheries chief, said he and other officials considered the request from locals to significantly boost stocking but said the decision to do so wasn't made because of fear that legislators would force the issue.

"We don't want to manage our resources under threat of legislation," he said. "We understand the socioeconomic pieces to this. Our challenge, from a biological perspective ... is how far we could stretch the rubber band. We came up with 20 [to 23] million fry."

Said Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji: "The charge I took was to lay something on the table that wouldn't compromise the science and well-being of Leech Lake, but that would also reach some level of agreement with this very energized public, something that all sides could support."

The Leech Lake Fishing Task Force, formed by local residents, hired former DNR biologist Dick Sternberg to develop a walleye recovery proposal. That plan asked for 46 million fry to be stocked this year. (Sternberg also recently worked as a consultant to the DNR to help with an accelerated walleye stocking program.)

But more isn't necessarily better.

"We felt that was too many," Payer said. There are genetic risks of stocking, and there is the risk that putting too many fry into the lake could actually suppress other year classes of walleyes.

"We also were concerned that if we stock too many fry, we lose the ability to assess what's going on in Leech Lake," Payer said. "And there clearly are complex interactions going on."

Another concern is that anglers will believe that stocking is the easy answer to any fisheries problems, officials said.

Still, the DNR, which originally proposed stocking 5 million fry, boosted that number to 7.5 million last year, and, in response to community pressure, offered to increase it to 12.5 million fry this year.

But at meetings in Walker in January and February, the local task force and others, including Howes, made it clear that they wanted more.

So the DNR agreed to stock up to 23 million fry this year, a number officials believe still will keep negative risks low. In a news release, Payer said: "... We are taking unprecedented steps in the name of the local community, its economy and the health of the fishery."

Sternberg, Howes, Walker Mayor Brad Walhof and others viewed it as an acceptable compromise.

"I'm really pleased," Walhof said. "There was a lot of pressure put on [DNR], but ultimately it was their solution to make."

If the walleye reproduction, both naturally and with help from the stocking, is good this year, the DNR will wait a year before stocking again. However, if the numbers are poor, officials could stock another 23 million fry next year.

The cost to stock those 23 million fry this year is estimated at $40,000 to $50,000.

DNR officials say the stocking in Leech is at best a temporary fix.

"On a lake like this, over the long haul we shouldn't need to stock walleye fry at all," Payer said.

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The DNR is renowned for taking the path of least resistance. Left on their own, they would sit in the office, do studies and consume coffee and donuts.

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Otter, you're being a little harsh. The DNR are progressive , how can you blame the DNR for a cormorant outbreak? This situation has never happened before, where fish eating birds have affected a population of fish in a body of water. Minnesota has the largest fish stocking program in the country, and manage a billion dollar industry, that alone tells you they are not just taking the path of least resistance. Now, if they would just put smallmouth in the lake. Can you imagine...........

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I know personally of too many mismanagement horror stories to be a DNR supporter. I find your comment about stocking smallies to be indicative of the rest of your post - next to cormorants, that's about the fastest way to wipe out a walleye population.

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Sure the DNR could'nt prevent the outbreak but dont you thing they could of done something a little sooner. As for the smallmouths just look what happened to Green lake. You used to be able to go out there and catch walleyes all day long. Now you catch 10 smallies to every one walleye. It's terrible.

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Actually, I contacted the DNR several years ago and suggested that they request an exemption from the federal protection of cormorants (this was a possibility) due to the extremity of this situation, but they chose not to rock the boat. After the reduction finally began they caved to radical environmental groups and left the population high enough that the reduction will probably be insufficient to remedy the situation.

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Alright this may insight a riot but...all I'm hearing is cormorants. What I don't get is that the West half of the lake and Walker Bay doesn't have as much cormorant pressure as the Pelican side and the same walleye problems exist. The cormorants are part of the problem not the whole problem.

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My opinion on that is that fish don't stay in just one spot, they move around the lake. There is a classic fish movement on Winnie, and I trust it also occurs to a less predictable extent on Leech, probably according to Lindner's Calendar of Fish Activity (spawn, post-spawn, summer peak, etc.). Fish move around the lake following baitfish or seeking a desired water temperature. Just because a fish is caught in Walker Bay doesn't mean it is a "Walker Bay Fish," it just means it was there at that particular moment in time.

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I agree, I have a book with a great study on fish of Ten Mile Lake and their movements, even in Winter are great. I still think that cormorants are a piece of the puzzle not the whole thing. Water clarity, weed growth, baitfish highs and lows, year class issues, fishing pressure, netting all are pieces of the puzzle also. Cormorants are talked about because they are easy to see, ugly birds, that do damage no doubt, but again are a piece to the puzzle.

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Maybe the DNR will save their ammo and wait till the bird flu gets into the cormorants. All you have to then do is pick them up and get the incinerator going. I would think they would be highly susceptible to the bird flu because they all congregate in one place to nest and feed.

No No No to adding smallmouth to the lake. That will take out the walleyes. It is happening on Green and you will see it happen on Mille Lacs too. Now if they can somehow figure out how to produce an explosion of crappies in Leech much like what happened in Red, that would be something to see.

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I've also read the Ten Mile Lake telemetry study with interest. I wish there was one for Leech, but the lake is so big that they probably wouldn't be able to find the fish again. I recall reading somewhere that DNR said there were also a couple of bad year classes that contributed to the problem. My opinion on that is that the bad year classes were because of fewer walleyes spawning due to cormorant predation. DNR also tried to say it was just part of a lake cycle, but people I've talked to who have fished the lake for 50 years say it is now the worst that they have ever seen. I just would like to see Leech once again become the great fishery that it was in the past.

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I Feel sorry for the resort owners, I left leech 2 years ago after staying at a resort for the prior 10 years. I looked forward to opener and would check there web site weekly.You couldnt get a cabin at this resort if you didnt reserve for the following year.Now they only have 5 of 16 places rented for opener. We are staying on Cass

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Yeah I wish the lake was like it was before. I dont even like going to the cabin on leech because the fishing is so bad. could you amagine being a guide for leech right now.

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31 businesses in Walker have closed their doors since tourism took a dive - that's an enormous number for a small town. I'm starting to see cormorants on Winnie, Cass, Bemidji and even some of the smaller lakes in the area, so am really concerned. I moved here to fish in the summer, not snowmobile in the winter.

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I can't help but politely ask you what 31 businesses (i'm not really asking for 31 names for practical reasons). I'm sure some are resorts, and on main street Johnson's clothing store and a couple new "trinkit" stores are gone. However...there are at least a half dozen new businesses in the last one year. I'd say if any "established" businesses have left that would be something that could be correlated to walleye fishing. Reed's, the store whose business could be correlated to fishing the most has flourished, even the past four years. I know that for an absolute fact.

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I also know of another resort that was just purchased to be re-beautified. I am currently involved in the planning of the main lodge and Restaurant. We crunched the numbers prior to the purchase and DNR news release and it still makes sense. Even with the declining (or cycling) fishery. Walker will flourish again as well will Leech.

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I read all these posts and am curious about species other than walleye and how their populations are doing? I don't fish leech Lake, so if any one can enlighten me please be my guest. I have a hard time believing the walleye is the only species being effected by what is happening on leech.

Also, one thing to consider is that the DNR consists of many different types of people,some of those are field biologists, and those who work in St Paul. Both can have different approaches to a situation and sometimes the actions which field personnel suggests, doesn't always come true at decision making time. Not totally their fault. Before we take shots at our DNR, consider what they are dealing with, a 112,000 acre lake facing many factors which play an important role in shaping a fishery. It isnt some pond in the backyard where you can manipulate something and see changes next week. A snap of the fingers will never solve problems. Give it some time!

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The article did not name the businesses that had closed shop, and I don't get there often enough to be an expert, but what I noticed was that storefronts on the main drag would go vacant and then stores from the side streets who hadn't previously been able to get space there would move in. The higher priced souveneir stores seemed to get hit hardest because they relied almost exclusively on tourists, not locals, for their business, but the True Value Store where I used to be able to buy hard to find items is now gone. I imagine some of the closings were also not retail, and not as noticeable as vacant store fronts. A friend of mine has lots of friends who own businesses in the area and even businesses that have been successful for years are feeling the pinch. When I was a kid and we were vacationing I always loved to look at the plaid shirts and "up north" wear in Johnson's - the store was a fixture there for years. Regarding Reed's, their online business is so huge now that they could probably make it with no walk-in business.

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Quote:

Before we take shots at our DNR, consider what they are dealing with, a 112,000 acre lake facing many factors which play an important role in shaping a fishery. It isnt some pond in the backyard where you can manipulate something and see changes next week. A snap of the fingers will never solve problems. Give it some time!


Extensive USDA studies of cormorant damage to the Great Lakes (a bigger pond) made it obvious that the cormorants were a huge problem to walleyes here and not addressing the problem quickly would only allow it to get worse.

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Before we all sit behind out computers and complain, I have to ask how many of you fished it a lot this year???

It was a pretty good year for walleyes, perch, and of course world class musky...

I know you have a LOT better chance at a limit of walleyes than a limit of divers this year>>> crazy.gif

Anyway, I think these things go in cycles and once a system gets a bad rap everybody goes way too far and shoots the blame at everything from DNR, stocking, cormorants, muskies, locals, resorts, tourists, etc.

I wouldn't want to deal with a state full of "ARM-CHAIR BIOLOGISTS" while trying to make the correct management choices and doing my job the right way...

just my opinion, but lets let the trained biologists help the fisherman, not the legislators!!!!

p.s. where did the rocket science of smallies being a problem to walleyes ever get thought up??? How about LOTW, Rainy, Boundary Waters, Mille Lacs - did the smallies ruin those walleye waters....

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I did fish leech alot last year. I did notice that it was slower but you where able to catch them just a bit harder. As for the dnr I think that they are doing a good job. Like they said this is a big pond they are dealing with its going to take some time.

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gorilla, all the waters you mentioned were significantly better walleye waters before smallies were introduced. If you put a hungry pit bull and a hungry poodle in a room with one bowl of food, who do you think is going to have dinner? To those of you who think the cormorants aren't a problem: How many of you have seen a flock of 500 or a 1000 birds herding a school of fish and systematically slaughtering them? I've seen it a few times and that is more than enough for me. Well, as charming as this has been, I'm outta here for hockey today and tomorrow and then the curling tournament this coming week, so I will now leave everyone to their own devices. May Leech Lake fishing this coming year be better than it has been the last several.

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Otter I'm not going to get in a Pizzin match with you so don't take this that way, but first off I'm not a fan of cormorants. Being from southwestern MN originally though, I can't say they've wrecked the walleye population on Osakis, Big Stone, Traverse, etc. I think they are just a tiny problem in the whole sceme of things IMO...

But as far as smallmouths being introduced to Mille Lacs, LOW, Rainy, etc. Do you have even a clue of the history???

They are all naturally present in these lakes and do you really believe the walleye populations aren't at or near an all time high in these systems. All I can say is the DNR would be blamed for Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance if were up to some people...

They are doing a pretty darn good job on MN fish if you ask me, but ducks might be a different story...

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hey, correct me if I am wrong, but are the black birds nesting on Indian land? Even if the DNR wanted to do work five years ago it would go nowhere without the band.

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If the USDA has done extensive studies on cormorants I am unaware of it even though I have sat through hours of lectures concerning this conflict. The only good study done on a similar lake is in New York where they have found minimal effects on the walleye population. Also, previous literature has stated that in the past the cormorants darkened the sky just like passenger pigeons, the walleye population was not decimated then, and it will not be greatly affected now.

Current research focusing on the cormorants that have already been shot shows that about 0.1% of their diet is walleye. So, the only thing scaring people from the lake is the negative publicity. This means less fishing pressure for all the die hard leech lake fisherman. As for the businesses, the natural walleye fishery provided by leech lake will come around, and within a year or two a good study will come out stating the minimal effects of the cormorants on leech lake.

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Wallegator -

The USDA has done some studies on cormorant predation, but it's mostly been related to their effect an aquaculture. It's part of the jurisdictional nightmare with cormorants - they fall under just about everyone's umbrella when it comes to regulatory agencies, plus their migratory, so they are included in a handfull of migratory bird treaties.

There have been a number of significant studies done on cormorants and their effects on gamefish populations. Some of the more significant ones were done by the NY DEC (the NY equivalent of the DNR) on Lake Oneida and the NYDEC in conjunction with the Ontario MNR on the great lakes.

Having read the study on walleye and perch predation on Oneida, I wouldn't necessarily agree with the conclusion that it has minimal effect on walleye populations. In fact some of the researchers state quite the opposite.

One of the Oneida studies was interesting because it was structured specifically to compare cormorant predation to angler harvest on both yellow perch and walleyes.

What the study found was that harvest levels between the two was nearly equal. What was significant though was that cormorant predation was highly selective for sub-adults of both species. Anglers typically only harvested age-4 + walleyes, while cormorants exclusively harvested subadults. For perch, cormorants and anglers combined consumed 40% of the age-1 and age-2 population. But cormorants consumed 10 times more age-2 perch than anglers, and only comorants consumed age-1 perch. The study concluded that while overall harvest rates hadn't changed yet, continued mortality among sub-adults of both species would have an affect on angler success in the future.

Another study, done by some of the same researchers using the harvest data from the cormorant/angler research, analyzed the affect of cormorant predation on walleye population dynamics on Oneida. The research was fairly conclusive. Their research, which was done by comparing 40 year's worth of survey data, showed a clear reduction in the subadult walleye population concomitant with the increase in cormorant colonization on Oneida. In their conclusion, the researchers stated: "Our analysis suggests that predation by cormorants on subadult percids is a major factor contributing to the decline in both the walleye and the yellow perch populations in Oneida Lake."

Judging from what I've been told by some of the fisheries managers in the area, that sounds pretty similar to what's being found on Leech - adult fish are there, but year class recruitment has been dismal. It may be a combination of factors - lack of spawning success or forage issues - but that together with the cormorant colonization is likely having a significant effect.

I also think you have to be careful in citing the percentage of diet that a particular species makes up. On lake Erie, smallmouth bass were the 5th most abundant species found in cormorant stomach contents, and only made up 3% of their diet. Doesn't sound so bad, until you do the math (number of cormorants, average daily intake by volume, and average size of forage) and realize that adds up to between 200,000 and 1.25 million smallmouth/year eaten by cormorants.

About smallies in Leech - they tried to plant them years ago, and they didn't take. Who knows why...

Couple thoughts...

Cheers,

RK

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Wallegator I'm not sure if youre just trying to stir the pot or what but I think you need to do a little more reading about cormorant they have even cleaned out a few lakes in other countries. They might not be able to decimate the population because some escape to deep water areas. But they can sure hurt the pop. bad where the fish use shallow water flats. In the last two years they have been using a three mile flat some times there are a thousand at a time beeting the water to a froth. In the past on nice weekend you would see at least a hunred boats in this area in May and June last year maybe a half dozen this can also be a good place to fish in the fall but not any more. The Cormorants probabably didn't eat all the Perch and Walleye in this area but the ones they didn't had to leave the area or else. So I don't think you will convince any Resort owner, Guide, or fisherman that Cormorants will not affect a lake.

Bill Powell

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I say just let the DNR do some more studies, spend some more money, they'll figure it out, after all years ago they told us after doing their studies and spending thousands of dollars that if we would just quit using lead shot and use steel shot we would have a lot more ducks. Job security!!!!!

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Bill i grew up on the south bay of green lake in chisago in front of our house was a island ware about 300-500 comorants made there home from about 1988-1992. i remember watching them feed it was a horrable site they would eat every thing fish would be jumping out of the watter to get away. any one that does not think they can fish out a lake is wrong i have seem it first hand.they also will push fish out of an area and make them very spooky.

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Deepportage youve seen it first hand then and so have I. Now that the Walleyes are back on Red Lake the numbers of Cormorants showing up there is sickening. Last fall I took a couple kids for a youth water foul hunt to North Dakota and a little after day light we saw hundreds of birds heading our way and the kids were getting wound up and the guide told them to hold on there just Cormorants. I've been going out there to hunt for a few years but late in Oct. so there all gone south by then. So I asked the guide about them and he said they started to show up big time a few years back. He said some of there smaller lakes were just getting some good fishable Perch but the Cormorants moved into these shallow lakes and wiped the fish right out.

Bill Powell

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  • Your Responses - Share & Have Fun :)

    • Rick G
      St Cloud has a good access at Wilson park,  Sartell has a nice access off NE River Rd,  another access above Blanchard dam on East side off Hilton Rd  and at Lindbergh state park...Little Falls  has a access right above the dam.   Water is pretty high and dirty.  Crayfish colors have been good again this week.  Smallies have been using anything available that breaks the current so finding them most days has been pretty easy
    • Brianf.
      Interesting...   You're doing better than most.  The biggest bass weighed-in during the recent MN Bass Federation tourney was only 4.33lbs.   The winning bag was less then 20lbs.  To have several over 5lbs during your trip is pretty special.   Congrats!  
    • Jetsky
      Question.  I have guests coming who may want to fish for muskies.  I've cast for them in August along shorelines and at rock piles.   Do I fish for them that way in June?   Should I troll shorelines or drop offs for them?  Thanks.
    • partyonpine
      Yeah was up for a week.   As other alluded to the weather was brutal.  Did catch some larger walleyes on slip bobbers on windy points in under 5 feet of water.  As for minnows they were at Lucky seven in Virginia and Grubens has some nice minnows as well.  Smallmouth fishing was terrific given the circumstances.  
    • partyonpine
      Brian   That is funny and shows how things are anecdotal.  Just got back from a week we caught as many fish as we wanted, however our average size was 16.5-17 inches.  While no 6 pounders we did score several 5 pounders.  We did not catch any or very few fish under 14  inches all week.  I was just commenting that the average size has increased substantially.  We were throwing larger artificial and live bait but again did not really catch any small smallmouth.  Fished smallies for 5-6 hours each day and walleyes at night.  Overall was slow but the weather was horrendous.  Did go home with enough walleye to satisfy me.  
    • Brianf.
      I haven't been up to fish smallmouth  in a couple weeks.  My partner and I caught about 300 over the  course of those two days.  That sounds great - and it is if you like numbers. However, few of those fish were over 3 pounds and even fewer were over 4 pounds.  Most of our catch comprised fish between one and a half to 2 1/2 pounds.   I've been fishing the lake for 20+ years and feel that the size structure of the smallmouth in the lake has changed quite a bit during that time.  When I first started targeting smallmouth 20 years ago, half our bag seemed to be comprised of four pounders - and five pounders were in the mix with an occasional six pounder here and there. I haven't caught a 5 pound smallmouth bass in five years on Lake Vermilion!   They are a daily occurrence on places like Mille Lacs and in Door Co.   What has changed on Lake Vermilion?     I have some theories about why the size structure has changed, though curious what others are seeing.  Anyone have thoughts about the state of the smallmouth fishery on Lake V? 
    • SkunkedAgain
      Don't forget about the times that they unwittingly fly into your fishing line.   Normally I would say that ebbs and flows in food source would be a good sign. However, even with this bountiful mosquito population available there just really aren't enough bats around for the natural cycle to capitalize on it to any noticeable degree. The DNR says that roughly 90% of the bat population in the Soudan mine has died off. If that 90% is representative of the entire area, even a mosquito all-you-can-eat-buffet will not bring the bats back for many years.   Hopefully the little guys can make a comeback.
    • Dash 1
      Made it back to the chain today. Sunfish are spawning but finding them in the thick weeds is nearly impossible. My main reason to get out was to test my minnkota after rewiring it. It definitely made the difference. Never shut down once and I ran it for several hours.  Now I just need to relearn how to catch fish.😂
    • LakeofthewoodsMN
      On the south end...   A good week of walleye fishing with some big fish caught along with good eaters.  All of that despite some fronts that came through and lots of wind.  Being in a charter boat a few days this week was an advantage for sure.     Wherever you fish, there are days the wind will blow.  Here are some good options for anglers when the wind blows on LOW.   -Fish on a big charter boat -Fish the 42 miles of navigable Rainy River -Bays such as Four Mile, Bostic and Zippel Bay -Slide behind one of the thousands of islands that being up at the NW Angle -Trailer your boat to a leeward boat ramp and fish that shoreline A jig and frozen emerald shiner was the go to presentation for walleyes.  Most boats are anchored up and vertically jigging.  Some are starting to use spinners and minnows or crawlers with success.  This pattern will pick up steam as the walleyes are starting to transition with warming waters. Walleyes have been caught this week in various depths.  As a rule, 21 - 32 feet of water was still the range.  Again, various areas across the lake are holding fish.   Various rock reefs have been good.  Fish are transitioning to mud as the season progresses. On the Rainy River...  The river is flowing strong right now as water is being released from the dam which controls its flow.  With the heavier current, fish are being found in areas with a current break.  Even a slight break that still has current is a fish attractor when the water is moving.   Jigging with a minnow, pulling spinners and trolling crankbaits along shoreline breaks against the current in 6 - 12' of water is producing a mixed bag of walleyes, saugers, pike, smallmouth bass and an occasional crappie.   Casting to shoreline structure and even docks is also an effective method.   For those who like fishing for dinosaurs, the sturgeon season opens July 1st. Up at the NW Angle...  A great week of fishing amongst the island area of Lake of the Woods.  Guides fishing the Canada side of LOW reported big numbers of walleyes along with a mixed bag.   Minnesota waters also produced good fish.  Many of the walleyes are being found in deeper than normal water for this time of year, in that 22 - 28 feet.  As hatches begin and shiners begin to spawn, there will be some shallow water opportunities as well. The goto presentation continues to be a jig and minnow.  Pulling spinners with shiners or crawlers and trolling crankbaits also putting walleyes in the fry pan.     As is common in these parts, a mixed bag of walleyes, saugers, pike, jumbo perch, crappies, pike and smallmouth bass being caught.   Muskie anglers, the season opens on both sides of the lake Saturday, June 15th.  A glorious day for those who target the almighty predators!  
    • leech~~
      Over the years the only sure time I have been able to see bats or know their around.  Is sitting by a fire or down by a dock at sun down when there's just a bit of light left when looking up, and seeing them diving in and out.  
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