May 10, 2015

Lake Winnebago-What if…

By: Larry Smith

What would Lake Winnebago be like if it had a slot limit? A slot limit where a fisherman could only keep one walleye over 20 or 22 inches. What would it be like if the panfish limits were either 10 or 15 a day as opposed to the current 25?

I have been fortunate enough in my life to fish all over the country and in every body of water that has some type of slot limit; those are the systems that have remained consistent and I have wanted to return to.

As a kid growing up and fishing this system, I have seen a lot of up and down cycles in our fish populations; kind of like a roller coaster ride as a result of over-harvesting. I can’t imagine with some regulation changes how incredible and consistent this fishery could be. I don’t think that there are more than a handful of bodies of water in the country that have the cosmetics that the Lake Winnebago system has.

When you are looking at a system that has two main rivers running into it, a handful of secondary rivers coming into it, as well as numerous lake spawning areas, this system (if managed correctly) could be a world class multi-species fishery. As an example, when you look at years ago how strong the sauger population was, it’s hard to believe that in the spring on the north end, where the main spawning areas were, that you would allow hundreds of boats to harvest these fish during the spawn and not think that that had an impact on the decline of the population. I know that disease was a contributing factor on pulling the numbers even lower, but if there had been a closed season or even a restricted area years ago, I believe the disease wouldn’t have played as much of a factor as it did on the numbers of fish that were affected by it and we would still have a healthy and robust population of sauger.

Now let’s examine the perch population. We sometimes have a very short memory. I was going back on my records and didn’t realize that we went almost 16 years without a healthy perch population. Once the population did recover, it took us only 3 years to pretty much deplete 16 years of recovery. I attribute that, to once again, over-harvesting. I am sure there are other factors, however, I feel that this would be one of the easier factors to control. Now, I am not one to think that we need more rules and regulations in the country, but it sure would be nice to have some regulations that made some sense.

I always think it’s something when you take the two largest bodies of water in the state, such as Lake Winnebago and the Petenwell Flowage, and there is not a fishing resort on either one of the main lakes.  But yet, if these bodies of water were in Minnesota, there would be 3 to 7 fishing resorts and they most likely would be multi-million dollar resorts.

Do you say to yourself that there is no one in Wisconsin that would love to build a resort on one of these main lakes and make a great living and enjoy seeing people come from other states and spend their money in our area? I don’t think that’s the case. I think the real story is that everyone knows that there is no way that a fishing resort of that magnitude could survive the up and down cycles of these lakes due to the over-harvesting. 

Another thing to realize about the Winnebago system is that from about the end of April until well into July there are a number of tournaments every weekend on this system. Now, don’t jump all over me and say that I am an anti-tournament fisherman, because I have fished tournaments for many years and I know that they can be very beneficial to the economy. However, I also know that they can be detrimental to the system; especially considering that there is no size limit. When you are fishing a tournament you are not normally bringing in 15 to 18 inch fish if you can help it. You are bringing in 18 to 22 in. to 24 inches. When these fish end up dying for one reason or another, you are killing the most productive spawning fish in the system. Now again, I don’t think that it would be fair to play favorites and allow some organizations to have tournaments and deny others. With a slot limit, I think the system would fair much better even with the presence of tournaments. I feel this way because if you can only keep one fish over 20 in. per person, you can only have two over 20 in. in the livewell and three under 20 to 15 inches. For one thing, it is a lot easier to keep these smaller fish alive in your live well and secondly, if they do die, you are only taking out two of the most productive spawning fish in the system. According to the DNR 18 to 24 inch fish are the most productive fish in the system. Lastly, it makes it a bit more challenging mentally on which fish over 20 inches to keep because of Wisconsin’s’ no cull rule.

When you look at all of the things that have changed as far as technology in this world, the fishing industry is right up there as well. When you look at the advancements of all the different locators, side imaging, down imaging, locators that can chart on their own, lake master chips, I could go on and on. How about social media?! This is probably one of the advancements in technology that has affected the industry the most. Years ago you received your information from the local bait shop, if you were lucky. Most of the time, by the time you heard what was going on, it was old news; the bite was done. You might even have gotten a phone call from your buddy when you got home from work on your land line. But nowadays, a guy doesn’t even have his full limit in the boat and he is already on his smart phone letting thousands of people know where he is fishing and how he’s fishing.

The number one reason that I am writing about this topic, and my biggest concern as a fisherman and conservationist, is that we need to get more kids involved in the outdoors both fishing and hunting. We all know how the younger generation is, if something doesn’t grab their attention then they move onto the next thing. We need to grab their attention!