AS THE Department of Natural Resources (DNR) prepares to celebrate 75 years of fisheries research in Vilas County, walleye anglers are cheering the overwhelming approval of revived catch-and-keep angling on Escanaba Lake.

The lake is one of five experimental lakes that are part of the Northern Highland Fishery Research Area just east of Trout Lake off Highway M, which hit its 75-year anniversary on Father’s Day.

The DNR will host an open house at the Escanaba Lake station on Aug. 6 to celebrate the project milestone.

The DNR announced in spring its plan to lift the one-fish, 28-inch minimum walleye size limit that’s been on Escanaba since 2003. The proposal passed the spring hearing vote by a landslide, 5,723 to 1,127.

Starting on the second Saturday in June next year, 2022, walleye regulations will mirror the most common rule in the ceded territory, including a 15-inch minimum size limit, a 20-24 inch protected slot and a three-fish daily bag limit.

That’s great news for people who like to eat some of Wisconsin’s favorite game fish, the walleye. The annual season will remain open until the poundage quota for harvest is met, again part of the agency’s research on the interaction between harvest and natural reproduction.

It was 18 years ago that the DNR ended a 54-year experiment that gave anglers unlimited access to walleyes on Escanaba, including no season closure, no bag limit and no size restrictions.

Despite the unprecedented and total lack of limits, Escanaba showed that anglers couldn’t fish out a high-quality walleye lake with great natural reproduction.

In many years the per-acre adult walleye population was among the best in Wisconsin — as high as 18 walleyes per acre at times when a good population is around 3.5 per acre.

The one-fish, 28-inch minimum was sold as a 10-year experiment. Escanaba became a zero-harvest base lake for another study involving lakes outside the five-lake experimental area.

The angler survey dataset from this experimental lakes area is one of the longest continuous fish harvest datasets in the world, featuring a complete record of very angler who has fished the lakes and every fish legally harvested from the lakes since 1946.

The data set was made possible by a mandatory angler survey that required anglers to stop by the Escanaba Lake creel station before and after fishing.

There anglers had every fish measured and often sexed, which involved cutting and killing the walleyes to determine their sex. Scale samples were taken to determine age in comparison to length.

The scribbler and his fishing companions have registered hundreds of walleyes over the years, fish taken from brushy shorelines, gravel bars, fallen trees and log-filled bays.

Even during the mostly catch and release fishing imposed by the latest regulations, we enjoyed the telltale taps of the walleye bite on a jig and minnow and the fight of some dandy fish in the 20-inch range.

Greg Sass, supervisor of fisheries research in the area, said today’s population on Escanaba is about 10 adult walleye per acre.

“With zero harvest the past 18 years, there is good length distribution in all classes,” he said. “There is a population of large walleyes, many of which are in the 17- to 20-inch range.”

But without a harvest, he said natural reproduction went from high and variable to low and variable as a growing population eventually ran into a lack of forage.

“There were so many mouths to feed under the zero-harvest, 28-inch minimum size limit,” he said. “We know of only one 28-inch walleye in the lake today, so it’s definitely not a good trophy lake.”

I can tell you from first-hand experience that just because the DNR hasn’t netted or tagged a walleye above 28 inches doesn’t mean there isn’t a trophy fish in the lake.

In those extensive records you can find a year in the early 1990s when an angler caught, on a Friday afternoon before the general fishing opener, a 29 1/2-inch walleye that had never been netted, fin-clipped or tagged. It was a monster walleye that the biologists didn’t know about.

The scribbler knows that because the mounted walleye hangs in my basement. It was netted by Dan Moericke of Three Lakes, one of the Leinie’s Guys. We had to fish in open areas of the lake because ice covered most of the bays.

The research conclusions I enjoyed most about Escanaba was how it proved that angling is low efficiency, that walleye reproduction can respond positively to harvest pressure, and that nothing beats the productivity of natural, undeveloped shorelines filled with woody debris.

Escanaba was, and still is, a pristine gem harboring shorelines that you’d find in Canada. There are few lakes like it anywhere in Wisconsin.

Next year’s regulation change will revive catch and keep walleye angling on this premier lake, and I for one can’t wait to wet a line there once again.

You never know what you’ll see on those undisturbed, natural shorelines, from nesting loons and whitetail fawns to black bear and raccoons.

And then there’s the walleyes, of course, which are the biggest draw.