AFTER seeing that tribal spearers had taken 546 walleyes from Cranberry Lake and 411 walleyes from Catfish Lake this spring, I put a call into the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last week.

The harvest totals were historically high and quite alarming, especially after the scribbler discovered in a detailed analysis two years ago that more than 50% of the walleyes taken were in the 14- to 18-inch protected slot.

What bothers me about the slot limit is that once a walleye reaches a decent size, which is 14 inches, for the next three to five years it can only be harvested by a tribal spearer or a poacher.

The conversation with regional fish manager Steve Gilbert was a good news, bad news affair.

He said that since the department changed the rules to give sport anglers a guaranteed three-walleye daily bag limit on every lake in treaty country, the tribes are declaring 90% of their safe harvest about every other year.

There was a time they tried not to go over 60% because it meant a one-fish or two-fish bag limit for anglers, and a lot of controversy for the tribes. But now they can go above that threshold every other year and not impact bag limits.

That’s why we’ve seen walleye spearing harvests as high as 2,400 fish from a single lake, such as Pelican Lake two years ago, because they can make a 90% declaration in some years.

And if you add to that higher declaration a current population estimate, which also gives them a higher harvest percentage because the data is more accurate, then the spearing quota can really boom.

“If their declaration on a given lake exceeds 60% two years in a row, they cannot return to that lake to spear on the third year,” said Gilbert.

While the scribbler and some sport shop owners have criticized the slot size limit on the Eagle Chain for years, claiming it’s not very tourism friendly, Gilbert says he hears no complaints from the angling public.

And without any negative feedback, he’s not about to propose a change.

“I’d at least like to hear from people who oppose the slot limit, so that I can explain the reasoning behind it,” said Gilbert. “The walleye fishery is healthy, there is good recruitment and the fishing hasn’t suffered, so I see no reason to change it at this time.”

For those who want to speak with Gilbert directly, his phone number is 715-356-5211. His phone extension in Woodruff is 229.

He said because there are more walleyes in the 14- to 18-inch size class than in years past, the slot limit is working. And that has occurred even with the tribal harvest, where a slot limit doesn’t apply.

“The slot is also a way to control the number of young walleyes as they will cannibalize the fishery,” he said.

But there’s also another catch to the controversy. Research has shown that in some years, there are fewer walleyes in the Eagle Chain that are over 18 inches.

That might indicate that most of the slot fish are getting picked off by tribal spearers and poachers before they get out of the slot. And from a tourism perspective, that’s terrible.

To recruit and raise thousands of walleyes in the Eagle Chain that are not legally available to sport anglers just seems like bad management.

Most male walleyes that reach 14 inches will never get out of the slot. They grow slower than female walleyes and many won’t reach 18 inches prior to getting picked off or dying.

Personally, I’d rather see anglers catching and keeping some of those smaller walleyes than to rely on cannibalizing walleyes to keep the numbers in check. But that’s just me.

If you are wondering where the good news is contained in all of that, I didn’t find any either. The good news came in the second part of our conversation, which was about Kentuck Lake.

The lake pulled off good year classes in 2014 and 2016 after the stocking of short fingerlings of less than two inches in length.

“Fall shocking surveys showed recruitment of 38 young per mile in 2014 and 38 young per mile in 2016,” said Gilbert. “The average for a good walleye year class is 30 per mile.”

Then after the 2018 stocking, the DNR’s fall survey showed 109 young walleye per mile — a little more like the on and off extremes that Kentuck Lake is known for.

“The adult walleye population was two per acre last year and we expect that will increase this year,” said Gilbert. “A comprehensive survey and creel census is set for Kentuck Lake in 2020, so we’ll learn a lot more about the entire fishery next year.”

So why am I calling that good news?

For those who have spent decades fishing Kentuck Lake, they’ve experienced some incredible highs and incredible lows. 

It boomed around 2004 after just one major stocking effort and suddenly, the lake was holding 13 adult walleyes per acre. For reference, the average “good” walleye lake in Wisconsin has about 3.5 to 4 adult walleyes per acre.

“There’s no doubt that Kentuck has been a lake of extremes at times,” said Gilbert. “We are just hopeful that the natural reproduction will kick in strong once these solid year classes mature.”

So there’s my report for the week. The Eagle Chain is still in good shape despite the fact that legally, anglers have to release most of the decent fish they catch.

I’m still shaking my head on how much sense that makes.

And Kentuck Lake is on the verge of returning to its glory days for walleye anglers. Last time it boomed, anglers got hit with some extremely low walleye bag limits.

Spring fishing is at its peak right now. Walleyes are in the weeds, the crappies are spawning and the bluegills are moving shallow.

It’s time to fish!