St. Louis River anglers wonder where the big walleyes have gone
Did the 2012 flood make St. Louis River Estuary walleyes harder to catch? Or are there fewer of them?
ON THE ST. LOUIS RIVER — Chris Edquist grabbed the fishing rod out of the holder and pulled back just enough to see how big the bend was.
It was the 20th or so walleye the two of us boated that morning, on our way to about 35 walleyes caught and released in five hours of fishing on a warm, sunny June day. But you could tell Edquist was still a little disappointed.
“Another 15 and 1/8th incher,” Edquist said as he measured the fish and set it back in the water. "Barely legal. … One of those up-and-coming walleyes the DNR is talking about."
There seem to be a lot of those barely legal walleyes in the river estuary this summer, fish just over the 15-inch minimum size required before they can be legally kept, and a lot of even smaller walleyes, too. That’s fine for some anglers — a 15-incher makes for about the best eating walleye there is. But what Edquist and many other anglers are looking for are the mothers of those eater-size fish, big walleyes 24-, 26- and 28-inches long. Or bigger.
“There are still some 30s out here. We got two 28s in one day last week, and that was a first,” Edquist said while unhooking yet another 15-inch fish. "But as far as day-in and day-out, the big fish are just way down from what they used to be."
Edquist, of Superior, is the president of the Twin Ports Walleye Association, a group of hardcore walleye anglers who hold tournaments in the area and who focus much of their attention on the St. Louis River below the Fond du Lac dam. The estuary is a sprawling, 12,000-acre river fishery that widens to form the Duluth and Superior harbors on its way out into Lake Superior.
Edquist says most of the association members agree that the number and especially size of the walleyes they catch are down over the past decade. And their meticulously kept tournament records prove it.
“We’re going down by ¾-inch per year,” he said of the average size of the 350 or more walleyes measured in each event.
A Minnesota prison corrections officer during his day job, Edquist is a busy fishing guide during the summer and fall ( Quest Fishing Guide Service on Facebook ). In addition to walleyes he’s an avid musky hunter. He spends about 100 days fishing on the estuary each year.
“I live four blocks from two boat landings on the river,’’ he said. “So it’s pretty convenient.’’
Pulling plugs, not crawlers
Edquist used to fish walleyes in the river like nearly everyone else did, trolling spinners baited with nightcrawlers and weighted with bottom bouncers. But over the past decade he has switched almost entirely to trolling plugs.
“It’s just a more effective way to catch more fish,’’ Edquist said. “It’s the perfect presentation for the places out here where I fish most often.”
That’s why Edquist has 14 plastic cases of walleye plugs in his boat, probably 400 or more lures touching nearly every size, color and brand available.
“It’s kind of an addiction,’’ he said of buying plugs.
Most often these days it’s a Berkley Flicker Shad on the end of the braided line, trolled 20-30 feet behind the boat off long, limber rods with line-counter reels. Edquist likes to fish near the deeper shipping channels in the estuary, often in about 6 feet of water, and zig-zags a lot. He moves the 20-foot Skeeter boat using his 10 horsepower kicker outboard — just under 2 mph — but does most of the steering with his bow-mounted battery-powered trolling motor.
The hits kept coming every place we fished that morning, all on Flicker Shads. A sort of tangerine-pink color was the best. Purple got some fish, too, as did Fire Tiger. We caught a few 18- and 19-inch walleyes, and Edquist lost one bigger walleye, but most were between 14-16 inches long.
“The (best) color changes every day, sometimes in the same day, depending on the water clarity,’’ Edquist said. It’s not clear how or why subtle changes in lure color make so much difference as subtle changes in water clarity occur. “But it does. It really does.”
Water clarity is the most critical aspect of walleye fishing on the estuary, he said. If it’s too sunny and calm, the fish will shut off by mid-morning. A few clouds or a little wind can turn them back on. Most of the time the problem is that the river is too dirty. St. Louis River water is always dark, root beer or tea colored, due to the tannins in the water from upstream bogs. But add rain or dredging or a brawling east wind off Lake Superior and the sediment that comes with it can turn the river into a chocolate-milk-colored mess.
“Fish just shut down when it’s like that. They won't bite. I don’t even bother trying,’’ Edquist said. “Visibility (in the water) out here is everything.”
A river revived, then the 2012 flood
From the late 1800s through the 1970s, lumber mill leftovers, industrial waste, paper mill effluent, raw sewage and urban runoff polluted the lower St. Louis River beyond what most fish could tolerate. Sturgeon were wiped out of the system. A few walleyes somehow hung on, holding their noses long enough to spawn in the quagmire each spring and then retreating fast back into a cleaner Lake Superior.
But when pollution regulations were put into place and sewage treatment was upgraded in the 1970s, the river water cleaned up fast (even if sediment was still polluted.) By the late 1980s the estuary was a hotbed for walleyes and walleye anglers as well as smallmouth bass, muskie, catfish and panfish. The river was consistently good almost every spring and early summer. It wasn’t hard for a couple of anglers to catch 50 or more walleyes in a day in May and June.
“And a lot of those fish were over 20 inches. Sometimes we had problems catching fish small enough to keep,’’ Edquist said.
A decade ago, on June 19-20, 2012, a torrential rainstorm hit the Twin Ports area and a record flood ensued. The river took out the swinging bridge upstream in Jay Cooke State Park, flooded homes, wrecked generators in hydroelectric dams and sent tons of sand, gravel, mud and debris gushing downstream for days.
When the water went down enough to get back out, anglers found the river had changed course in some areas. Sand and gravel bars were moved or missing, some islands were gone entirely. Formerly deep channels had filled-in to become impassable.
“It’s never been the same since then. We have some good years, but it’s not like before the flood,’’ Edquist said.
The river changed so much upstream of Billings Park in Superior that the Coast Guard stopped trying to mark a navigation channel. From Spirit Lake on up, you're on your own. Most older maps are useless. The flood also took out most weed beds, Edquist noted, and changed where and how walleyes can use the river. It also changed where anglers can fish for them.
Survey says walleyes are here, but muddy waters scatter fish
As the News Tribune first reported earlier this month, results from a major estuary walleye survey conducted in the spring of 2021 shows a robust and expanding population. Preliminary survey numbers found the estuary population between 75,000 and 85,000 total walleyes.
That’s up from the most recent extensive survey, in 2015, which found just 41,000 to 52,000 walleyes in the population. The 2021 survey is more in line with the 1981 extensive survey that found a range between 69,000 and 84,000. At worst the new survey is a 25% increase from 2015. At the midpoints it’s a 70% increase.
“It’s a good sign. It shows there’s really nothing out there that would indicate a big problem with the walleye population. They seem to be doing very well,’’ said Paul Piszczek, fisheries biologist for the Wisconsin DNR.
Fisheries crews from Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs captured 7,000 walleyes using an electric shocker to stun the fish, scoop them up, bring them to shore to measure, record the data and then quickly release them. Each fish got a green tag with a unique number. Crews then went back out to recapture fish already tagged. Biologists pumped those numbers into a computer model in which the ratio of total tagged fish to the number of recaptured fish offers the estimate of the total population.
The results indicate the walleye population is self-sustaining, naturally reproducing and able to withstand current fishing pressure. Several year classes have thrived since the flood, including 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2018. All of those fish are of catchable size now, and the 10-year-old fish are into that mid-20-inch category many anglers enjoy catching. Piszczek said all those 15-inchers we had been catching are likely from the 2018 class.
But some anglers, including Edquist and other members of the Twin Ports Walleye Association, are scratching their heads over the survey results. They simply aren’t seeing all those extra walleyes compared to 2015. Edquist hopes they are starting to show up now.
“I’m seeing more smaller fish this year than the last few, so maybe they're right. There are a ton of those 15s and a bunch around 14 and some even smaller. And if they are counting all those (in the population survey) then that does seem to show a lot of fish are coming up,’’ Edquist said. “That's a good sign for the future. I’m hoping those fish keep moving up as the years go on. ... I’m skeptical, but hopeful.”
It’s possible walleyes are frequenting parts of the estuary that anglers haven’t traditionally fished as much and avoiding old hotspots. It’s even more likely that walleyes, for whatever reasons, spend more time in Lake Superior. The estuary’s walleyes have always been migratory, spawning in the river each spring and then slowly dropping back downstream to spend summer and fall in the big lake eating smelt, shiners and herring. Indeed, DNR research shows that the majority of food consumed by big walleyes from the estuary population comes from Lake Superior, indicating that’s where the big walleyes probably spend much of their time.
Angler success on the big lake also is a sign that the big walleyes are moving up Wisconsin’s South Shore early and often. More and more big lake anglers report catching walleyes in addition to salmon and trout.
Edquist agrees the bigger walleyes are spending a lot of time in the big lake, especially as major dredging projects have occurred in the harbor. Over the past decade the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has allowed state and federal agencies to conduct a half-dozen major dredging and cleanup projects in the estuary to remove contaminated sediment, restore fish and wildlife habitat and clean up debris left by years of waterfront industry.
The projects are hoped to leave the estuary in a much cleaner and more natural state than before. But, during the process, the work leaves a plume of muddy sediment running miles downstream, sometimes even upstream if there’s a strong east wind.
“The fish just move out once that plume hits,” he said.
The restoration projects that will start in coming weeks this summer — at Spirit Lake and off the Munger Landing in Duluth — are just the latest change for a river that’s seen its share of changes over the past century. Edquist said both fish and anglers have to keep adapting.
“It pretty much ends my summer on the river once they start working,” Edquist said of the restoration projects. “Hopefully, when they get it all done and we can have a few summers of normal, with no work being done, and no flooding … maybe then the fishing will get back to normal, too.”
Estuary mercury warnings remain
Walleyes from the St. Louis River Estuary system have unusually high levels of toxic mercury contamination. Studies recently found those higher levels likely come more from legacy mercury pollution deposited in the watershed decades ago and less from current mercury pollution that comes from global and local air emissions, such as from coal-fired power plants.
People are warned to limit their meals of walleye from the estuary population, especially larger walleye. Women who may be pregnant and all children are warned not to eat any walleye over 22 inches from the river, ever, while limiting meals of smaller walleyes to once monthly. Men and women who won't become pregnant are advised to limit their meals of large walleye to one per month. Smaller walleyes contain less mercury.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause severe health problems, especially in children and developing fetuses.