Wisconsin’s lake trout fiasco on Lake Superior

The author with his grandson harvested this lake trout from Lake Superior waters near Madeline Island before restrictions on lake trout were put in place. The fish came from very deep water and today would have to be released and likely succumb to delayed mortality.

It all starts with poor management and gets worse. Look at Lake Mille Lacs if you want a prime example. I see it happening on Lake Superior now. First the commercial fishing beats a fish population down and the Department of Natural Resources tries to do something, anything, to hinder the ugly consequences of the exploitation and the sport anglers take the beating. Without the ability to target the real culprit – the nets – the fish population keeps declining until drastic measures are necessary. Then this doesn’t fix the problem because the nets are still in the equation with few restrictions.

It all starts with slot limits. Anglers are only allowed to keep fish in a certain size range. This might maintain a particular fish population on a lake where only sport angling and minimal subsistence netting occurs, but on lakes where commercial fishing goes on, slot limits accomplish nothing. In cases like the Lake Superior lake trout restrictions around the Apostle Islands, it actually causes more harm.

During the months of July and August the lake trout go deep. Real deep. With the slot limit at 20 to 25 inches to keep there will be a lot of fish caught, a lot of fish tossed back, and a lot of fish that are dragged out of very deep water will be tossed back to die. The delayed mortality of the lake trout will be obscene during this time when they come out of water over 100 feet deep. So how do these slot limits protect the fish? They don’t.

Why not just lower the limit to two fish of any size for sport anglers and pull the nets? The nets that caused the problem to begin with! Why are we punishing the sport angler? 

When Minnesota removed nets from the equation on Lake of the Woods, walleye populations exploded. When the nets were taken out of the equation on Lake Erie, the walleye population exploded. When the nets went into Mille Lacs the walleye population tanked. Wherever nets come into play the fish populations suffer. Look what happened to Minnesota’s Red Lake. The nets nearly wiped out the walleyes.

So now we have sport anglers on Lake Superior being punished for a lake trout population thanks to excessive netting, and the restrictions are going to cause more harm than good. Where is the sense in that?

But then the rules regarding Lake Superior always amaze me. The only one that makes sense is the one regarding the smallmouth bass in Chequamegon Bay, a rule advocated for by Freshwater Fishing Hall of Famer Roger LaPenter, a truly remarkable visionary. The trophy smallmouth fishing is tremendous, and we owe that to a sport angler’s dedication.

On the other hand, the northern pike rule says you cannot keep a pike from Lake Superior under 26 inches. What? We should require every angler to release all pike 26 inches or larger to protect the big ones, create a trophy pike fishery, and allow anglers to keep the smaller fish to eat.

Nothing makes sense in this wacky world of fish management. Too much politics and not enough actually protecting the resource.

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