Walleye anglers on the Winnebago System’s lakes and rivers could see the daily bag limit drop from five fish to three by 2020 as the Department of Natural Resources updates its management plan for Wisconsin’s largest walleye factory.
The Winnebago System includes the state’s largest inland lake, Winnebago, and the upriver lakes of Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan; as well as large portions of the Fox and Wolf rivers. The system covers 166,000 acres, which is 17 percent of Wisconsin’s surface waters. It also sustains a recreational fishery that contributes at least $234 million annually to local economies while supporting over 4,300 jobs.
The DNR enacted the system’s current walleye plan in 1991, and hasn’t changed any walleye regulations since 1997 when citizens supported dropping the 15-inch size limit. That restriction was enacted in 1992 to protect strong walleye hatches from earlier years.
The Winnebago System’s walleye season has historically remained open year-round with a five-fish daily limit. Citizens attending the statewide fish and wildlife hearings April 9 will vote on a DNR advisory question to lower the daily walleye bag limit to three. If the idea advances, it would return for a vote as a formal rules proposal at the April 2019 hearings. The soonest it could become law is 2020.
Starting Monday, the DNR will also hold three public-input sessions to review the Winnebago System’s walleye management plan and its proposed updates, including a status report on the walleye population. The two-hour meetings begin at 6:30 p.m., as follows: Monday, March 19, at the JP Coughlin Center, 625 E. County Road Y, Oshkosh; Wednesday at the Engler Center for the Performing Arts, 530 W. Main St., Chilton; and Wednesday, March 28, at the Mosquito Hill Nature Center, N3880 Rogers Road, New London.
The DNR has nurtured longtime public support on the Winnebago System, particularly for sturgeon and walleye management. Since the late 1980s citizens also have supported the DNR’s comprehensive plan to protect the system’s shoreline habitats and improve its walleye spawning marshes along the upper Fox and Wolf rivers.
The Winnebago System is well known for its healthy, self-sustaining walleye population. From late March through July 4 each year, anglers from across Wisconsin and the Midwest venture there to fish. A University of Wisconsin-Extension study in 2006 found that nonresidents fishing the Winnebago System spent about $725 per trip. Anglers from the system’s five home counties — Winnebago, Waushara, Outagamie, Calumet and Fond du Lac — spent about $160 per trip.
Adam Nickel, the DNR’s senior fisheries biologist in Oshkosh, said the Winnebago System’s walleye population remains strong. The system’s river-fed spawning marshes produce large walleye hatches about every three years. The current walleye population is fueled by big hatches in 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2016.
Even so, area anglers regularly worry about excessive fishing pressure. In 2010, the 212 anglers attending DNR meetings in Menasha, Shiocton, Quinney and Fond du Lac ranked “overharvest” as their No. 1 concern.
The DNR, meanwhile, has captured and tagged 5,000 walleyes annually since 1990 during their spring spawning runs to monitor the population’s size and health. Numbered tags injected near the fish’s dorsal fin help the DNR track their survival and catch rates. Based on feedback with fishing clubs and groups such as Fond du Lac’s Walleyes for Tomorrow, the DNR long assumed about half the anglers landing a tagged walleye reported their catch.
Based on that estimate, and data gathered at tournaments and annual trawling assessments on Lake Winnebago, DNR biologists found no evidence of overfishing. Even so, the agency tagged and monitored immature female walleyes on Winnebago and upriver lakes in 2015 when these fish, mainly from the 2011 hatch, were 15 to 18 inches long.
The 2015 season proved especially productive for anglers because it was a down year for gizzard shad, a prey species walleyes eat ravenously during its boom years while mostly ignoring fishermen’s bait. When the DNR analyzed fishing pressure on those young female walleyes, it learned anglers caught and kept nearly 60 percent of the tagged fish.
“That was an eye-opener for us,” Nickel said. “That demonstrated that we could have significant exploitation in one or two years when gizzard shad numbers are low. That showed the need to start throttling down a bit.”
To learn more about return rates on tagged walleyes, the DNR also launched a three-year study in 2016 that used 200 “reward” tags worth $100 each. The study is now in its final year.
After comparing returns on the $100 tags with regular tags, the DNR estimated a 29 percent return rate in 2016 and a 42 percent return rate in 2017 for the regular tags. Although those percentages are similar to return rates in other study areas, they were well below the DNR’s previously estimated 50 percent rate.
Nickel said that means more walleyes were caught and kept than previously estimated. After analyzing those estimates, the DNR concluded the annual “exploitation” on adult female walleyes exceeded 40 percent six times since 1993. Biologists believe exploitation should be 35 percent or lower to maintain walleye populations.
The DNR won’t make a final recommendation until studying this year’s tag returns, but Nickel thinks reducing the daily limit to three walleyes would help ensure the Winnebago System sustains a good walleye population despite its heavy fishing pressure.
Will a three-walleye limit fly with Winnebago System anglers? Nickel said the idea received a 63 percent favorable response during informational meetings with area fishing clubs and members of the Winnebago Fisheries Advisory Committee, which consists of over 25 representatives from local conservation groups.
Not everyone will like the idea, of course. But let’s concede it’s a gamble to let the walleye harvest regulate itself based on boom and bust gizzard-shad hatches. If gizzard shad numbers remained low several years, walleyes would be increasingly vulnerable to fishing pressure.
A three-walleye bag limit might mean fewer fish for evening meals, but it could ensure consistent walleye fishing far into the future.
Calling on walleye
If you catch a tagged walleye, perch or northern pike on the Winnebago System, call 920-303-5429 or email DNRwinnebagosystemtagreturns@wisconsin.gov, and provide the tag number, fish species, length, date caught, water body, location and whether you kept it. Also provide your name, street address, city, state and zip code, and email address. If you wish to mail in the tag, send it, along with the information above to: Wisconsin DNR, 625 E. County Road Y, Suite 700, Oshkosh, WI 54901-9731.