IF YOU’VE ever wondered why it is difficult to catch anything but a cigar-sized walleye on the Three Lakes Chain, there is an easy explanation.

Natural reproduction is virtually off the charts on this stained waterbody, and when you combine that with slow growth rates, you end up with a ton of little walleyes.

Part of the problem with growth rates is that there are just too many walleyes competing for the same food supplies, which is why the average walleye takes five years to reach 13 inches.

So not only do small walleyes dominate the fishery, but the little guys are overpopulated and generally hungry. And that’s probably why they are so aggressive and caught more often than the larger walleyes.

The Three Lakes Fish & Wildlife Improvement Association has been studying the issue for years, trying to come up with a solution that will enhance the average size of walleyes in the chain.

According to surveys done by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), walleye reproduction has consistently been way above average for decades.

On 690-acre Big Fork Lake, which is typical of other lakes on the chain but probably the best for reproduction, survey crews found 117 one-year-old walleyes per mile last fall.

“Finding 10 to 15 per mile is a good sign of an average year class, but this result is in the top 10 all-time best for the ceded territory in modern times,” said Mike Preul, director of Mole Lake Fisheries. “The year-one numbers are what mean the most, and they are off the charts on Big Fork year after year.”

Preul is employed by the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, which has donated $5,000 in each of the last three years to help the association with its long list of conservation projects.

The nonprofit does all sorts of projects to enhance fishing and hunting opportunities, including work on boat landings, fish stocking, crib placement, wildlife habitat, lake protection efforts and youth-related activities.

The group was intent on seeking new solutions while picking the brain of Preul, who’s been doing work on the Three Lakes Chain for decades. The tribe cares deeply about the health of the walleye fishery, for their spearers share in the walleye harvest every year.

Preul sent along survey numbers from Cranberry and Kentuck lakes for comparison purposes. On surveys conducted by GLIFWC last fall, the yearling walleyes totaled 31 per mile on Cranberry and 4.4 per mile on Kentuck.

“Big Fork’s numbers, at 117 yearlings per mile, are some of the highest we’ve seen since standardized survey efforts were implemented with the start of tribal harvest in 1985,” said Preul.

In the 18 fall shocking surveys that were done on Big Fork Lake since 2000, the average number of yearling walleyes per mile has totaled 32 — three times the average in northern Wisconsin.

In comparison, the average on Cranberry Lake over the same period was 23 yearlings, and on Kentuck, it was 12.

He said the major issue on the Three Lakes Chain is stacking good year class after good year class on top of each other, and expecting all those walleyes are going to find enough food.

“If we could find a way to remove some of that overpopulation, maybe growth rates would have a chance to improve,” he said. “But the average angler isn’t looking for a bunch of 11- and 12-inch walleyes, even though that’s the size where they are truly overpopulated.”

One reason the scribbler had to write on this topic is that for years, I’ve heard anglers talk about the need for more walleye stocking in the Three Lakes Chain to improve the fishery.

But that’s the last thing the chain needs when there is already an overpopulation of young walleyes competing for limited food supplies.

Three Lakes Fish & Wildlife has looked into all sorts of ideas, including the stocking of more forage minnows to help feed all those young walleyes. But biologists say you’d need billions of minnows, and a ton of money, to have any appreciable impact on growth rates.

I’d love to propose removing some of those overpopulated cigar-sized walleyes to other lakes in Three Lakes that are currently in need of stocking, as a way of reducing competition while also helping other waterbodies. That might be the best way to improve growth rates.

But the people who believe we need to stock walleyes in the Three Lakes Chain would go ballistic over a plan to remove walleyes from the chain.

Meanwhile, with the open water fishing season right around the corner, anglers fishing the Three Lakes Chain would actually be doing the lakes a favor if they kept some of those little walleyes for the frying pan.

Apparently, the 12- and 13-inchers are some of the best-eating walleyes. Friends who go to Canada every year say that when it comes to shore lunch, too many bring in 16-inch walleyes instead of 12s and 13s.

As the story goes, and I’ve heard it numerous times, the smallest walleyes are the first to go when the trays of fish are ready — and the anglers who brought in the larger walleyes are the first to grab the smaller fillets.

And trust me, they hear about it. Nobody worries about being too nice or too politically correct in fish camp.

Now I’m not saying that there is nothing but little walleyes in the Three Lakes Chain, because that is far from the truth. But all those little fish certainly make catching the bigger ones a greater challenge.

Without some unprecedented heat wave in the final week of April, ice-out is going to be two to three weeks behind this year. Heck, we will probably be ice fishing on the opener.

As the old saying goes, better late than never. When open water gets here, we’ll certainly be ready.