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Dokken: Problems loom on Lake Winnipeg

I spent only one day fishing Lake Winnipeg this winter and have gotten my fix of the big lake vicariously through the experiences of others.

If there's a common theme, it's the scarcity of larger walleyes, the giant "greenbacks" that have drawn anglers to Lake Winnipeg by the thousands in recent years.

Catching walleyes this winter on Lake Winnipeg hasn't been a problem most days, from what I've been told, but those big "Master Angler"-size walleyes measuring 28 inches or longer have been conspicuous by their absence.

That was our experience in early January, as well. Three of us easily landed 40 walleyes, but only a couple of those fish measured longer than 20 inches.

Most were of the "cookie-cutter" 16- to 18-inch variety. Nice walleyes, to be sure, but nothing we'd brag to our friends about.

Contrast that to the January afternoon three years ago, when two of us landed seven greenbacks in the 28-inch range and lost at least that many others at the hole.

I may have lost a few big walleyes that day, but at least I had the opportunity to hook them.

So what's going on?

Long story short, you can't catch what's not there. The big walleyes, almost all of them from a massive hatch in 2001, are disappearing, experts say, driven by a commercial fishing industry that operates on a provincial multispecies quota system that allows the netters to harvest more than 14 million pounds—that's not a misprint—annually of any combination of walleyes, saugers and whitefish.

YouTube presentation

Scott Forbes, a University of Winnipeg biology professor who has closely studied the Lake Winnipeg decline, highlighted those numbers in a March 2016 presentation to the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.

The MWF shared Forbes' presentation, "Lake Winnipeg—A Fishery in Decline," on its YouTube channel, and the information he provided paints a sobering picture for anglers.

Lake Winnipeg rarely was fished by ice anglers as recently as 15 years ago, and the province manages the big lake as a commercial fishery and not for recreation.

There's no verifiable data, but Forbes says the commercial fishery probably takes seven-eighths of the annual walleye harvest, leaving the remaining eighth for sportfish anglers.

"Anglers are something of an afterthought," Forbes says in his presentation.

Under the multispecies quota system, commercial netters target the most valuable of the three species, which in recent years has been walleyes, Forbes says in his presentation. The commercial walleye harvest as recently as 2011 soared to levels approaching 10 million pounds annually, a level Forbes says is not sustainable.

That's proving to be the case, and in the fall of 2015, in response to the commercial fishing industry's complaints of poor catches, the province made what Forbes calls a "seat of the pants" decision to extend the commercial season.

At the same time, Forbes says, the province has slashed the size of its fisheries staff from 90 in the 1980s to a crew that now "could fit into a seven-passenger van and a compact car." So tight are budgets, Forbes says, that fisheries crews can't get out on the lake to conduct crucial fish assessments because they don't have enough money to buy gas to run the boats.

More issues

Forbes also wrote an article, "Killing Lake Winnipeg's Golden Goose: Is the Greenback Walleye Population in Danger?" which appears in the February issue of the Winnipeg-based magazine, Hooked.

In the article, Forbes writes that commercial netters have turned to setting larger-mesh gillnets greater than 6 inches to make their harder-to-fill quotas.

Those larger-mesh nets, in turn, are catching more of the trophy-size walleyes from the 2001 year-class, the greenbacks that draw anglers to Lake Winnipeg by the thousands.

It's not a stretch to say those fish caught by hook and line are worth exponentially more to the economy than the few dollars a pound those same fish fetch after they're caught in a net.

Forbes maintains there are plenty of walleyes for both the commercial and sportfishing industries if the lake is managed differently. That means implementing best management practices that are based on solid scientific data, information that simply isn't being collected right now.

Lengthening the commercial netting season and setting larger-mesh nets to more effectively catch the fish that remain isn't good management, he says. Nor is a quota system that's not sustainable.

But if history is any indication, those changes—if they come at all—won't happen without a lot of pain and a lot of fighting. Look no further than the battles that raged in the 1980s between angling and commercial fishing interests on Lake of the Woods.

Manitoba sportfish anglers are making their voices heard on social media, which didn't exist when the battle over commercial fishing raged on Lake of the Woods, but changing a culture as embedded as Lake Winnipeg's commercial fishing industry won't come easy.

Lake Winnipeg has become a popular destination for anglers in North Dakota and Minnesota, and I've corresponded with Forbes about sharing his views on Lake Winnipeg in more detail. He says he'll be happy to do that, so hopefully we can set up a time that works in the next few days.

Based on what's happening on Lake Winnipeg, Forbes told me he's not surprised bigger greenbacks are harder to come by this winter.

"The fishery is in a perilous position for a variety of reasons, but the big concern is that commercial fishers are targeting the jumbo walleye, having run out of other fish to catch," Forbes said in his email. "This places the future of the Lake Winnipeg walleye fishery in jeopardy, as the big fish, almost all female, are the mainstay of the spawning population."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happens to a fishery when spawning stocks are depleted, but unfortunately, that's the course Lake Winnipeg is on right now.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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