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Winnebago System Walleye Slot Talk

As some of you will remember, I asked for your opinion regarding a slot limit on the Winnebago System a month or two ago (2015). It was a hot topic. A few said it would hurt our fishery, while the vast majority agreed with one another on the idea that a slot was a good idea, JUST during the spawning period (March 1st-April 30th). I think the main idea you all liked was a slot of 20"-27", five fish in possession, one could be over 27"?

This hardwater season has been been a good one to put eyes on the ice and there sure have been some pigs caught. Many were released while some were kept. With the run starting, I wanted to touch base with our great fisheries team and see what their thoughts were on this subject. As expected, they have fielded many questions on the subject. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

"Myself, along with MANY others who follow the OB Outdoors Facebook page (including others I have spoken to), have wondered about the DNR (your team) requesting and pushing forward a "temporary regulation" regarding a slot limit just during this year's run. It was sure a hot topic on a post I asked last month with over 10k viewing and some sharing their comments.

It REALLY hurts me to see our big girls and great spawners being kept.

I know our system is flourishing (a big thanks to you guys!!) but with a lower hatch last year and lowered food sources this year, its going to be a complete slaughter come the run. As we both know, many have begun "staging" and already moving, but I would not feel right if I did not bring this up to you and see what your feelings are on it while we still have ice. I have a feeling I will be told our system will be self-sustaining even with the points I have mentioned but again, I am just passing forward our feelings. While we might not see the effect now, in a few years, I'm thinking (without all of your training and data) there could be some."

Response from Biologist Kendall Kamke:

"Adam (Nickel) has taken over the responsibility for managing the walleye in the Winnebago system since I am now our work unit supervisor. I’ll let Adam address the biological issues you raise, but I will comment on the notion of a temporary rule that you mention.

The ability to tailor rules to what the biological data is telling us in a timely manner would be a wonderful tool to have if applied properly and the public was comfortable with managers decisions. It would allow the agency to quickly and efficiently apply the necessary rules to keep things on track. Managers in some states currently do have the ability to operate this way. We are not one of them. We have a long tradition of vetting rule changes through a relatively long internal process, with ample amount of opportunity for public input. This ensures that rules that are not well thought out aren’t quickly rammed through. Making a rule change involves public meetings, internal peer review, Natural Resource Board review, legislative committee review and now more recently review by the governor’s office. It also factors in potential economic consequences of the change, social ramifications, impacts to tourism and other local businesses, tribal obligations, etc. Depending on a number of factors, this process can take up to 2 – 3 years. Our continuing work on the trout and panfish rule proposals are a good example of this.

There are still ways to enact “emergency rules” through the Natural Resources board, but those are reserved for dire issues, which I don’t believe that our current walleye population would warrant. Those rules are usually in effect for 120 days and are designed to allow more time to address the immediate problem they are enacted for. The next board meeting is April 7 – 8 and the deadlines for getting stuff on the agenda have mostly all passed. I hope that puts some perspective on how our rule making process works here in Wisconsin. I’m sure that Adam will thoroughly address the system biology to you."

Response from Biologist Adam Nickel:

"We rely heavily on our monitoring efforts throughout the year to inform us on the health of the Winnebago walleye population. One of the crucial surveys we conduct each summer is the annual bottom trawling assessment to evaluate young of the year abundance for forage and gamefish species, including walleye. This allows fisheries staff to assess year class strength each year and compare it to years past. The figure below indicates several strong walleye year classes in the last 10 years including 2005, 2008, 2011, and 2013 (Figure 1).

As a result, these strong year classes have provided a consistent influx of fish into the adult spawning stock once sexual maturity is reached. Many of the bigger females being caught right now are still a product of the strong year classes seen during the early 2000s and 2008. However, the strong 2011 year class has just started to recruit into the fishery and the 2013 year class (3rd strongest year class on record since trawling began in 1986) is also set to contribute to the fishery in the next few years. Fisheries staff also monitor the adult walleye population each spring by conducting electrofishing surveys on the Wolf and upper Fox Rivers. The primary objectives of the survey include: 1) marking fish with anchor (floy) tags to estimate angler exploitation, 2) evaluating age and size class distribution of the adult spawning stock, 3) monitor adult growth and mortality rates, and 4) assess spawning marsh conditions.

Each spring fisheries staff aim to tag 5,000-10,000 walleye in order to track angler exploitation (recreational and tournament) through the walleye tagging program. Since the walleye tagging program began in 1993, exploitation has been tracked annually. The program relies heavily upon anglers and tournament organizers to report any tagged walleye that they catch to the Oshkosh DNR Office. Exploitation rates often vary on an annual basis due to forage availability and fishing success. Since 1993, male walleye exploitation rates have ranged from 4.2-23.0% while female walleye exploitation rates have ranged from 5.4-32.9% (Figure 2). In most years, exploitation has stayed below the 30% mark that fishery managers generally consider the tipping point where harvest levels may not be sustainable for the population.

Since 2010, male and female exploitation levels have stayed below 18%, including in 2014 when exploitation was estimated at 14.5% and 12.7% respectively. The lower exploitation rates over last few years can likely be tied to forage base trends, specifically the strong hatches of gizzard shad in 2010 and 2012 that saturated the system with forage for walleye to key in on that in return makes fishing more difficult. Therefore, the forage base and strong walleye recruitment have helped keep exploitation rates in check and support a healthy walleye fishery, despite the recreational and tournament fishing pressure.

Ultimately, the annual Winnebago trawling and spring electrofishing surveys give fisheries staff the ability to manage for the future. It is also very important to note that these surveys would not be conducted annually without the help of local volunteers. In fact, volunteers often make up over half of the trawling survey crew. This allows the public to get involved with the surveys and see exactly how fisheries staff manage the fishery. In the recent years, the walleye population has demonstrated strong year classes every few years and at the same time exploitation has been kept in check without restrictive regulations being needed. As a result, strong year classes continue to drive the fishery and offer plentiful fishing opportunities for all types of anglers. Therefore, an emergency rule to reduce harvest would not be considered necessary at this time and as stated by Kendall the standard rule change process can take 2-3 years. As we have seen in the past, forage base changes such as gizzard shad hatches can often turn the tables quickly making fishing more difficult and ultimately driving down exploitation for us. The key will be to continue evaluating recruitment, age and growth, exploitation, and other parameters to predict the management that is needed to ensure a healthy walleye population for future generations. I am currently working on a more detailed walleye report from the 2014 sampling year and what the outlook is for 2015."

As you have read and can see in the included figures, there have been years in which the harvest has been high but the system has bounced back. In my opinion, I am sure this year's assessments, once completed, will show a high harvest rate for this year, but again, our system has seen this in the past. Its hard to tell as of now.

Our DNR team has the ability to enact emergency regulations if the data shows the need, but at this time with the data they have from last year's assessments, there is not a need for one. Now, who knows what the future will bring but at this time there is no hard evidence to support the enactment of such a regulation. As Biologist Kamke stated, it takes YEARS to bring a hard regulation to pass but if their data shows the need, they do have the ability to enact the emergency type right away.

I would like to thank both Biologists for their responses and data. Due to the detail, I know this was surely not a "quick response". It is appreciated and hopefully this article will help to cut down some traffic to them!

As stated in the conversation, if a regulation is proposed, public meetings will be held and if this subject holds value to you, either way, its important to speak your voice! It is important to take note, if you harvest or catch a tagged fish, gather the data and report it asap to the DNR!

I know there have been some difference in opinions on this subject, mainly in favor of a slot during the run, but I wanted to get this info out to you guys in case it is still sitting on your mind.

Tight Lines. Stay Dry. - Kyle

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