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Brad Dokken: Anglers catching, keeping big walleyes in Devils Lake Basin sparks annual spring debate

Brad Dokken

I'll never forget the first time I fished the Rainy River. The fishing was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. And while I've had the privilege of wetting a line in remote, far north waters of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, I'm not sure any of them surpassed the walleye action we encountered those two days in April 1987.

The fish were big, they bit readily and they were abundant. For a couple of guys in a 12-foot boat with a 4-horse Evinrude who had absolutely no idea how to fish the river, the action was nothing short of amazing.

Even after 30 years, that trips remains the standard.

There was a dark side to those two days, though. Back then, anglers fishing the Rainy River could keep six walleyes, and there was no size limit. I'm not sure how many stringers of 5-plus-pound walleyes we witnessed, but they were common.

That was legal at the time, but the ethics of keeping a big walleye for the cleaning table any time of year—much less during spawning season—is questionable in my mind.

In the case of Rainy River, plenty of other people felt the same way. Lawmakers even closed the spring season on the river for a year in 1989 or 1990, but it was reopened after a compromise was reached limiting anglers to two walleyes, none longer than 19½ inches, through the close of the season April 14.

Anglers still had the opportunity to experience some pretty amazing fishing when conditions were right, while protecting spawning walleyes.

The springtime regulation on the Rainy has been in effect ever since.

The debate over keeping big walleyes has been brewing anew the past couple of weeks in the Devils Lake Basin, where anglers in places have been lined up elbow to elbow targeting fish attracted by the abundance of spring runoff.

Walleyes and current are a perfect match, and fishing along the coulees that flow into Devils Lake can be spectacular during years such as this when runoff is high and flows are strong.

I haven't made it up there myself, but I've seen plenty of photos that confirm the quality of fishing anglers have encountered, not only for walleyes, but for pike and even white bass.

Every year, it seems, sportsmen attending the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's spring advisory board meetings bring up the idea of imposing a slot limit to protect larger fish or reducing the limit at a time when walleyes, and big walleyes in particular, are concentrated and especially vulnerable.

Every year, the department says there's no biological reason to either close the season or implement a size limit.

They make a good case. The best spring fishing—much of it done from shore—lasts only a few weeks, and there's no evidence to indicate springtime walleye harvest has limited production.

According to an article in the February 2017 issue of North Dakota Outdoors, a 2013 creel survey on Devils Lake showed only 3 percent of the walleyes harvested that year were longer than 20 inches.

The article also cited a May 2013 creel survey along the coulees that flow into Lake Irvine and Lake Alice, which found 59 percent of the walleyes harvested were 20 inches or longer.

A one-over-20-inch slot limit would have protected about half of those fish, the story said, a number that would have been in the hundreds and not the thousands.

"Most of these hundreds of fish would have returned to Lake Irvine or Lake Alice, where they would have found refuge due to difficult summer access on Lake Irvine and no summer fishing allowed on Lake Alice," according to the article. "Considering the vast expanse of water in the upper Devils Lake basin, the only time many of the fish are vulnerable to anglers is for a short time in the spring."

In other words, the perception is worse than the reality.

So, in the meantime, anglers who catch a big walleye in North Dakota will have to decide for themselves whether to keep that fish, regardless of the time of year.

It might be legal, but more and more, it's becoming less socially acceptable.

Count me in that camp.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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