The countdown is on to the start of the walleye fishing season at Iowa's Great Lakes. Beginning at midnight on the morning of May 7, the 135th walleye season will be open.
The Big Three lakes - East Okoboji Lake, West Okoboji Lake and Big Spirit Lake - will host thousands of anglers from across Iowa, as well as from Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota who make the annual journey to Dickinson County in pursuit of ol' marble-eye.
Those anglers can expect to find a couple large year classes from 2001 and 2007. Fish from the 2001 year class range from 21 to 24 inches while the 2007 year class fish are measuring 14 to 17 inches.
"Those two year classes are dominating the fishery right now," said Mike Hawkins, fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "These two year classes made up the bulk of the 2010 walleye catch and we expect that again in 2011."
Walleye season begins well after the annual spawning run is completed and fish will hopefully be hungry for the thousands of minnows, leeches and night crawlers coming their way on jigs and Lindy rigs.
Each of the Big Three lakes has unique features attractive to anglers. East Okoboji Lake is shallow, narrow and will have warmer water. West Okoboji Lake has deep structure mixed with shallow bays. Big Spirit Lake has bowl-like contour and rocky reefs. Which lake is best to fish?
"It's really which lake you are comfortable with," Hawkins said. "They all offer unique challenges and opportunities for excellent walleye fishing."
Maintaining these high quality fisheries year after year is a challenge shared by everyone, from the angler, to the management team to landowners, residents and businesses in the watersheds.
Walleyes in these lakes serve a dual purpose. Not only do they draw anglers from around the region, they serve as a broodstock source for many of Iowa's lakes and rivers.
The DNR has invested heavily in research and development to create an efficient and high quality walleye culture product and a number of advances in the science of walleye culture occurred because of that investment.
Some of that research has translated into regulations, like length limits. "We started the 14-inch minimum length limit in 1987 and that had an effect on harvest," Hawkins said.
Over the next 20 years, fisheries staff assessed the impact that minimum length limit had on the fishery. "We looked at a lot of factors and in the end, we determined that the regulation was not achieving the desired outcome," Hawkins said.
In 2007, the DNR looked at changing that regulation.
A computer model was used to look at different regulation scenarios using the 20 years worth of data collected while the 14-inch minimum length was in place - walleye harvest, age and growth rates, and population size.
Of all the scenarios that were modeled, the 17 to 22-inch slot in place today showed optimal balance of harvest, catch, and broodstock protection.
"For regulations restricting harvest to be used as a tool to improve the fishery, you have to see that harvest is impacting the fishery," Hawkins said. "We don't pull regulations out of the air. Regulations are customized to lake's walleye population dynamics, angler preference, harvest and any special objectives such as high density broodstock populations.
"We'll continue to review this regulations impact for an additional five or six years, during that time we'll get a true picture of the impact along with the natural variation in the walleye population to determine if the slot is doing what we had hoped," Hawkins said.
He said to create a consistent, high quality fishery requires good water quality and good habitat. "A fishery can only be as good as the water resource and protecting and enhancing these resources must be a cornerstone of these efforts," he said.
But in the meantime, the walleye fishery is riding a hot streak.
"We are experiencing some of the best walleye fishing that we've ever had," Hawkins said. "The great walleye population in Spirit Lake has been enhanced in recent years by the huge yellow perch population that is the forage base for most game fish species in these lakes."
With everything seemingly moving in the positive direction, what could possibly harm these lakes?
"The big picture stuff is water quality, watershed protection and preventing aquatic invasive species from entering these lakes," he said. "What is the long-term impact that will come from yellow bass being introduced to the lakes? What will happen if zebra mussels or Asian carp get in the lakes? How will the lakes respond if we start losing ground in the watershed?
Too often, we focus on regulations and stocking. These things are definitely important, but only a small part of building a great fishery. If a lake becomes sick, all the stocking and regulations in the world won't bring it back," Hawkins said.
The importance of keeping these lakes healthy stretches beyond the boat ramps. These lakes are the driving force behind the local economy.
Many local businesses cater to anglers and the opening weekend of walleye season draws huge crowds.
Campgrounds, hotels, cabins, restaurants, bait shops, gas stations, grocery stores and more will be busy with thousands of customers coming in from out of town to fish for walleyes.
Thane Johnson, owner of Kabele's Trading Post and Lodge across the street from East Okoboji Lake, will be open all night Friday and Saturday to greet the hoard of anglers coming in late and to serve as an official weigh in station for the Easter Seals Great Walleye Weekend.
"This is my busiest weekend of the year," Johnson said. Preparation will begin soon sorting night crawlers and leeches, stocking shelves and sorting minnows.
On a usual weekend, Johnson may have two people working his shop. But on walleye weekend, the number triples.
That same surge in business is being repeated at a bait shop a few lakes away.
Sitting on Hwy. 86, on the southwest corner of West Okoboji Lake, Oh Shuck's Bait, Tackle and Convenience Store is a favorite stopping place for anglers getting in to town.
Steve Pflueger, owner of Oh Shucks, said he sees many of the same groups gathering for the walleye opener each year.
"It is similar to when everybody gets together for the opening of pheasant season. Lots of camaraderie," Pflueger said. "You can fish for walleyes everywhere in Iowa, but up here it's an annual event."
Pflueger said opening weekend is also his busiest weekend of the season and in addition to the large volume of live bait, he sees an increase in a specific locally hand-tied leadheads, planer boards, jigs, Rapalas and Lindy rigs. But his best seller is sweatshirts and warm gloves, he joked.
Oh Shuck's will also be open all night as part of the Easter Seals Great Walleye Weekend.
Error in Walleye Season Dates
The walleye season on Spirit Lake, East Okoboji Lake and West Okoboji Lake begins at midnight on May 7. Other publications have listed the opening weekend beginning in April, which is not correct.
"We've been taking a lot of phone calls about walleye season opening in April and that is not correct," Hawkins said. "The season opens May 7."
Easter Seals Great Walleye Weekend
Dust off your reel and check your line! Kick off the 2011 walleye season at the Iowa Great Lakes during the 29th Annual Great Walleye Weekend, May 7th and 8th. This two-day fishing tournament benefits Easter Seals, a statewide non-profit organization that provides programming and services to children and adults with disabilities or other special needs and their families.
For more information, go to http://ia.easterseals.com and click on events.