After nearly 70 years of the status quo regarding walleye fishing regulations on Minnesota-Wisconsin boundary waters, change has arrived.
Beginning March 1 in Minnesota and April 1 in Wisconsin, the daily bag limit on Pools 3-8 for walleye and sauger will drop from a combined total of six to four with only one fish over 20 inches allowed and a minimum length limit of 15 inches for walleye.
On Pools 9-12, the daily bag limit is six combined walleye and sauger with a 15-inch minimum on walleyes and a new protected slot of 20-27 inches for walleye with only one walleye over 27 inches allowed for harvest.
“We’ve heard positive feedback about the changes from anglers who care a great deal about sustaining the high quality fish populations and the fishing opportunities on these Mississippi River border waters,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Kevin Stauffer.
Pool 4 includes Lake Pepin, a popular fishery and recreational escape for many outdoor enthusiasts. It’s been a top-notch walleye and sauger fishery for decades. Now it has a chance to become perhaps the best walleye fishery in the country.
DNR studies indicate 70 percent of the eggs produced by walleyes come from fish in the 20-27 inch range. It follows that protecting those fish will increase the overall population while also providing anglers with more opportunities to catch “trophy” fish in the 5-pound and up range.
The previous regulations allowed anglers to harvest six walleyes over 15 inches daily. At certain times of the year — and especially the spring — that took a toll on the primary breeders in the population structure. It wasn’t unusual for anglers to limit out with six females all over 20 inches and while the Pool 4 population was able to sustain that loss, one had to wonder how good the fishery could become with tighter regulations.
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Ultimately, most of us travel considerable distances to get to the Mississippi River. Some would argue they’d rather be able to keep more big fish during those periods when they are most catchable, but others would make the case it’s more important to build and sustain a fishery that features quality and quantity.
In 2003, the Iowa and Illinois DNRs got together to implement similar restrictions on Mississippi border waters. The fisheries on Pools 12 (Dubuque), 13 (Bellevue), 14 (Clinton) and 15 (Quad Cities) have gone from what was largely a walleye wasteland to a destination.
Veteran anglers like Maury Schmerbach of Dubuque and Harry Miller of Bellevue are on the river more days of the year than they aren’t. Both say slot limits have saved the walleye fishing on their pools, an observation supported by Walleye Anglers Trail tournament results.
Using a catch-record-release format, W.A.T. anglers are able to count any fish they catch as opposed to weighing in only those outside the protected slot. That’s resulting in some huge one-day catches. It took 38.76 pounds for a five-fish limit to win in 2015 out of Bellevue, a W.A.T. record that was broken last year at 39.19 pounds. The average weight of the fish in those two events were 5.14 and 4.59 pounds, respectively.
“My own personal feeling is this slot in these pools has really worked,” Miller said. “You can see every year’s hatch for the last five years in your catches. It’s really awesome, compared to what it used to be 20 years ago when you had to struggle to catch 22, 24, 25 inch fish.”
Schmerbach has witnessed the same growth.
“It’s phenomenal, I think,” he said. “You catch a lot of big fish, and you can go out and catch a limit or two of fish every day.”
Kevin Oyen of Dubuque is the owner of the W.A.T. He enjoys seeing people catch big walleyes as much as anyone.
“Ever since they put that slot in, it’s been fun,” he said. “The fishing on our pool in Dubuque and on down the river is as good as I’ve ever seen it.”
From Dubuque north, it’s about to become as good as anyone has ever seen it, too.
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Doug Newhoff was sports editor at the Waterloo Courier and has been an outdoors writer for more than 20 years. He also spent 15 years as a professional fisherman on the Masters Walleye Circuit and Walleye Anglers Trail.