Updated: 5:34 p.m. | Published: 3:10 p.m.
The walleye population in Leech Lake is healthy and stable, with anglers enjoying above-average catch rates that make it an attractive destination, the Department of Natural Resources said Monday as it issued the final version of its five-year management plan for the popular northern Minnesota lake.
Leech Lake's walleye population has rebounded after a big drop in the mid-2000s that was blamed on a surge in hungry cormorants nesting on the lake.
But the 2016-2020 plan highlighted a newer cause for concern — a falloff in Leech Lake's yellow perch population, the favorite prey for walleye. The report put part of the blame on heavy pressure by ice anglers, and suggested that tighter limits may be necessary someday.
Overall, the 39-page plan says Leech Lake's walleye population has fully recovered. That allowed the DNR to relax restrictions starting with the 2014 season to allow anglers to keep more walleye and to relieve some pressure on the perch. The plan sets a target harvest of 130,000 to 190,000 pounds of walleye annually — higher than the catch has been in recent years — and calls for maintaining an average summertime catch rate of 0.3 per hour or better.
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That current "slow and steady" rate is "pretty darn good" for Leech Lake, said Doug Schultz, the DNR's Walker area fisheries supervisor. While the bite isn't as hot as Upper Red Lake's, he said, it's still above average for Minnesota's big walleye lakes.
"Usually you're not going home skunked," Schultz said. "Not to say it can't happen — I've had those days — but by and large it's been pretty good."
The plan calls for maintaining the existing possession limit of four walleye and a size requirement that anglers release all walleye from 20 to 26 inches but lets them keep one over 26 inches. The plan also calls for keeping the cormorant population limited to 500 nesting pairs through continued culling of the big black birds.
Tim Anderson, owner of Spirit of the North Resort, sat on an advisory committee that helped develop the plan and said he was pleased by how well the process worked. But he said he still thinks the plan allows too many cormorants. He said they remain "a huge vacuum sucking perch out of the system." And he disagrees with the DNR's decision to stop stocking the lake with walleye. He's skeptical of the agency's conclusion that stocking merely increased predation on perch.
If the DNR is concerned about perch, Anderson said, it should consider lowering the daily limit to 10 from its current 20. The lake's jumbo perch are popular among ice anglers, and Anderson said the pressure on them has grown as anglers switch from struggling Mille Lacs Lake.
"You don't need to have 20 big perch for one meal," he said.