Cormorant issues need your attention now, not later
Written by The Pilot-Independant   
Friday, 27 January 2006 04:36

If you haven't heard by now, there are heated discussions arising out of the stocking of walleyes and the cormorant problem in the Walker area, primarily on Leech Lake. Sure you might say that this really doesn't concern you, but you better continue to read the following information.

Several years ago there seemed to be a problem with the walleye population on Leech Lake, and it's been closely related to a nasty exotic bird known as a cormorant. The catch numbers continued to drop to where drastic measures had to be taken. The cormorant population went from 250 nesting pairs to more than 2,500 nesting pairs and no one seemed to care. Example, in 1999 the harvest rate of walleyes by anglers was around 197,000 pounds and in 2004 it was less than 10,000 pounds.

This is the devastation that these birds have caused to one of the premier walleye lakes in the nation. Not only do they eat young walleyes, perch and shiners, they also have been credited with nearly wiping out the tullibee population, which is a source of forage for muskies, northern pike and walleyes The cormorant is a federally protected bird, so getting rid of them is not the easiest project in the world.

After closely working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, a plan was carried out to reduce the number of cormorants to an acceptable level (which, by the way, no one knows what that level truly is) and began to stock walleyes into Leech in an attempt to bring back the population. One must realize that if the cormorant population isn't reduced to less than 100 pairs, and they are allowed to nest and reproduce, then all of this effort may be in vain.

I realize that I'm only giving you a small portion of what's going on, but I have some other astounding facts for you. Approximately 31 businesses have shut their doors forever in the Walker/Leech Lake area, guides on Leech Lake have lost 50-70 percent of their customers because of the decline in the walleye fishing in the last three years.

One must take into account that 70 percent of the anglers who come to Minnesota from out of state come for walleyes. As a guide, we can't just turn around and market ourselves for muskies, bass and panfish, for that is not what our reputation is as a venue, nor do people come here in great numbers to pursue these other species. Let's quit kidding ourselves, the walleye is the Minnesota State fish for which we are so passionately known.

Economically, if we don't have walleyes for people to catch and eat, then we will be done. The resorts will cease to exist, the bait shops, tackle stores and every business that depends on walleyes will be nothing but history. Is this a serious matter you ask? Quite definitely! WE, for the most part, are rural Minnesota and can't survive without walleyes in our lakes. The tourism business is huge, and fishing is one of the lifelines involved in that process.

There is another part to the puzzle that takes place that many times is forgotten. When the fishing for walleyes took a bad turn on Leech Lake, it spread the pressure to several lakes in the Walker/Cass Lake area. The problem with the walleye lakes in the Walker/Hackensack area is the population of walleyes in their lakes have been on a steady decline, except for a marginal few. That reduces the opportunity for walleye anglers to go other places to catch their favorite fish.

Without increased stocking or long-range plans to improve the walleye fishing on the majority of walleye lakes south and east of Walker, future problems will continue to be part of the scenario. I strongly believe that the DNR Fisheries personnel must take the time to work with lake associations, guides, business owners and anglers in their respected areas to have a better vision of not only successful fishing opportunities, but also to ensure a better economic future that seems very distant in the Walker area as we speak.

Enter the last issue of interest. This past season, on Lake Winnibigoshish, the cormorant population has continued to rise, whereas there were anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 cormorants during the months of July and August. I personally have a photo of a flock of cormorants that was taken approximately one mile west of Highbanks Resort that had upwards of over 1,000 cormorants that were catching and eating perch, shiners or young of the year walleyes. How long do you think it will be if these birds are allowed to continually ravage this body of water before a problem exists.

According to several resort owners in the Cutfoot Sioux area, the cormorants have taken over the gap area between the two lakes and have set up roosting sites for next season on Battle Point. The entire Tamarack Bay area of Big Winnie had hundreds upon hundreds of cormorants feeding through the summer, starting in June and continuing on into September.

One final note was that several of us, in September and October, caught several walleyes with large slash marks midway toward the tail of 14-16 inch walleyes. These are unmistakable markings of where a cormorant grabs onto a walleye and the fish was able to get away.

After reading this column, I hope that you will take notice of the issues that I have brought to your attention and will help prevent what's happening. We can't wait 10 years for studies, we need to address these problems now.
Tom Neustrom, fishing guide, Grand Rapids, Minn.

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