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WILTZ: Poking my nose into someone else’s lake

When our family moved to Burke during the summer of 1971, I became acquainted with area stock dams almost immediately. Largemouth bass were the primary quarry, but bluegills, crappies and perch also gained my attention. I learned quickly that many of the dams were vastly overpopulated with seriously stunted fish, and catching large fish in these impoundments was nearly impossible.

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Other dams had good balance with numerous two-pound bass and enough five- and six-pound fish to keep one coming back. I remember a dam north of Iona that held big bass. On top of that, every bluegill was the size of my hand. Equally attractive was the adjacent pasture full of prairie dogs.

To this day, I don’t completely understand the disparity in fish from one dam to the next, but I do believe that the hordes of small fish in some dams/lakes need to be thinned out before the quality of fish will improve. I also believe that the genetics of the fish are a factor, as well as the predator base and water quality.

On the local front, Dante Lake is full of small bluegills. To my way of thinking, our S.D. Game, Fish & Parks Department must liberalize the Dante Lake bluegill limit. There is no point in limiting Dante anglers to 15 bluegills. If anglers could hit Dante Lake, and all the lakes like it hard enough, I believe we would begin to see larger fish. Why? More food per fish.

Over the years, I have wondered if walleye lakes, like panfish or bass lakes, can over-populate and become more or less useless. In our own South Dakota, the Oahe reservoir has become over-populated with walleyes — hence the current 24 walleye possession limit. Oh yes, the plan is working.

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Tom and I, neighbors today, have been friends since our wrestling teams met on the mat back in the mid-1960s. Two weeks ago, we were taking turns at catching fat walleyes when Tom commented, “We’re not catching as many walleyes as we did when I first came up here, but the walleyes we’re catching now are certainly bigger.”

I got to thinking about Tom’s profound comment.

We were fishing Kwinagans Lake, a river-like body of water that lies southwest of Pickle Lake, Ontario. The lake, 30 miles in length, is shaped like a two-tined fork. The lake’s inlet is marked by a waterfall that lies on the end of the upper fork tine at the southwest end of the lake. The outlet is found on the end of the fork handle on the northeast end of the lake. Much of the lake runs about 5 feet in depth. It might be said that 95 percent of the fish are located in 5 percent of the water.

Some Wagner friends are part-owners of the only camp on the lake, and Tom and I are fortunate enough to be occasional invited guests. I made my first visit to Kwinagans 13 years ago. Tom’s statement about fish size inspired me to take out some photos of past trips to the Ontario lake.

In a 13-year-old photo of the guys holding up some walleyes at the fish-cleaning table, it is easy to see that the fish ran about 14 to 15 inches in length and perhaps a pound in weight — what I’d call good eatin’ size. Today, we throw those fish back and keep some of the 17 to 19 inch fish that were rare 13 years ago. As I write today’s column, I see one problem related to the walleyes I filleted last week. All of them were full of eggs. Perhaps we should have kept some smaller fish and returned the larger females to the lake. That’s a question debated in our own South Dakota.

How good was the Kwinagans walleye fishing 10 years ago? Ed Kniffen, of Tyndall, and I decided to see who would be first to catch 50 walleyes. With jigs hanging over the side of the boat, we drifted through a spot called “the narrows.” Ed won the contest 50-49, and I don’t know that an hour had passed during that time. Today, a 100 walleyes will not be caught in an hour on Kwinagans, but the fish that are caught will be significantly larger.

At this point in today’s column, I’m going to don my fisheries biologist hat and draw some conclusions followed by some recommendations that the owners may choose to follow or ignore.

Though the lake has length, it is narrow. Most anglers who fish Kwinagans know many of the best spots. Over the years the walleye population has been hit hard. However, because a better balance with larger walleyes has been achieved, I think the lake is in optimum harmony. The forage supply is in sync with fish numbers. So what do we do to keep it that way?

- Go with barbless hooks, easily achieved with a long-nosed pliers. This will increase the survival rate on all released fish.

- Tag and record the length and location of released fish. Within a year, much will be learned about numbers, growth and movement. Tagging kits are readily available.

- Plan ahead so that not a single fish is wasted. Don’t leave fillets in the fridge for the next group. They can catch their own.

- Think moderation when it comes to meals of fish.

- Utilize more of the fish in nearby, portage accessible lakes.

When Betsy proofread this column, she said I had no business telling people how to manage their lake. She saw an end to future invitations. She might be right, but I’ll take my chances.

With regard to fish quality and numbers, there is a situation I have no answer for. I’m talking about wilderness lakes full of large fish. What brought about the perfect balance? While on a 1993 caribou hunt, Don Kaberna and I were the first humans to fish a lake on the Ungava Peninsula.

It had not been touched by white man or Inuit. We caught large, healthy lake trout and Arctic char on every cast. How had this lake achieved perfect balance?

I know that some biologists will read today’s column. Others will have opinions. Please send your thoughts my way. See you next week.