August 17, 2008

PAUL A. SMITH A Random Sampling


Calumet Harbor -- The Calumet pulls out of its dock just after sunrise, chugging west through a veil of steam that rises from the warm waters of Lake Winnebago.

It's another day of work on the lake for the 53-foot trawler and its crew, another opportunity to gain understanding of Lake Winnebago, one of North America's most unique fisheries.

The crew includes three Department of Natural Resources employees -- captain Bob Hoodie and fisheries technicians Bob Olynyk and Doug Rinzel -- and four volunteers (Mike Arrowood, Donald Chrapla, Tracy Galica and Bob Marin).

At 137,708 acres, Winnebago is Wisconsin's largest lake. It's also very shallow for its size, with a maximum depth of about 21 feet, and is notoriously rough in windy conditions.

This early August morning is calm, which will make for pleasant travel, but may have a less desirable counterpoint: A cloud of midges, known locally as lake flies, swarms the boat and crew.

"There's usually two sides to the coin," says Hoodie, setting a course for a trawling location in the southern basin of the lake. "It comes with the territory."

The territory is the Lake Winnebago system, a vast complex of rivers, marshes and lakes. In addition to Lake Winnebago, the system includes the Wolf and Fox rivers and lakes Poygan, Butte des Morts and Winneconne.

In total, the system covers 166,000 acres and represents 17 percent of Wisconsin's surface water area.

Winnebago has the state's largest walleye fishery, according to DNR reports, and is one of the world's last remaining strongholds for lake sturgeon. The sturgeon population is robust enough to support an annual spearing season in winter.

A University of Wisconsin-Extension study in 2006 estimated the Winnebago fishery has a $234 million annual economic impact on local communities and supports 4,300 jobs in the region.

Given its size, diversity and productivity, it is arguably the most valuable fisheries resource in the state.

"It's a precious system, that's for sure," said Kendell Kampke, a senior fisheries biologist for the DNR in Oshkosh. "Right now it looks strong."

Kampke and other biologists get a snapshot of the lake's condition each year through a variety of fisheries assessments, including spring and fall shocking studies. Today's work is part of the annual young-of-the-year (YOY) trawling assessment.

Conducted since 1986, the YOY assessment on Winnebago is done in late summer and gives an indication of the number and health of the fish produced that year. Forty-six sites are tested each year; it's one of the longest-running such assessments in the state.

After reaching a waypoint, Hoodie engages a winch and unreels a large black net from the stern of the Calumet. The 26-foot-wide trawling net is lowered to bottom and pulled at 4 miles per hour for five minutes. The result is a sample of 1 acre of bottom, said Hoodie.

"Most of the adult game fish easily swim away from the net," said Olynyk. "We catch mostly rough fish and young fish of all species."

When the time has elapsed, Hoodie winches the net onto the stern of the Calumet. The net bulges with fish. Rinzel untethers the end and a writhing pile of fish spills onto a steel table.

The crew gathers around and begins sorting fish by species. Sheepshead, which represent the vast majority of the biomass on the lake, dominate the catch. They are put on a conveyor belt and accumulated on the foredeck; they will later be given to a mink rancher.

Adult game fish are pulled off the table and placed in water- filled tubs. A 31-inch channel catfish, two 25-inch sturgeon and a 13-inch walleye are quickly placed in the tub.

Dozens more carp and sheepshead are tossed aside. The pile dwindles until only young-of-the-year fish, most from 2 to 5 inches long, are left on the table.

Like pharmacists counting pills, the men then sort and tally the small fish by species. Rinzel writes feverishly, recording the data on a notepad.

"Twenty-five white bass, 13 emerald shiners and four yellow perch," says Arrowood. "And a dozen walleye."

That last part is key to the assessment. Given the importance of walleye to the fishery, one of the primary reasons for the assessment is to monitor walleye year classes on the lake.

The good news: This year's walleye hatch is one of the highest on record. Preliminary data show over 37 YOY walleye per trawl this year. Most years have less than 5 YOY; only 1996, with 41 per trawl, has been higher.

But the number of YOY walleye in summer doesn't necessarily mean the year class will be large.

"The fish are running a little small," says Arrowood, a director of Walleyes For Tomorrow, a conservation group dedicated to improving the fishery. "The real indication will come next year when we see how many made it through winter."

But it's clear there was a very good hatch. And that is due to high water this spring that flooded the spawning marshes. And to the work of conservation groups like Walleyes For Tomorrow, Otter Street Fishing Club and others that enhance habitat, raise young fish and help fund DNR projects around the lake.

"We have marshes producing walleye today that haven't in 50 years," said Arrowood, who's group has 3,000 members in 16 chapters.

The Winnebago fishery benefits greatly from a strong culture of volunteerism in the communities that ring the lake.

"The people here don't just sit back and belly-ache about what isn't being done," said the DNR's Kampke. "They sit down with us and see what we can do together."

The Calumet, for example, was purchased with private funds and donated to the DNR, as were several shocking boats. Local clubs each year also put in rock spawning reefs and staff a sauger hatchery.

The Winnebago system has been affected by invasive species like zebra mussels and the fish disease VHS, but so far has not been severely damaged, said Kampke.

"We know that it's critical to keep as many invasives out, and that is the only way to keep the future bright," said Kampke. "That responsibility falls squarely on the boater and angler."

The crew conducts eight more trawls, each with a healthy representation of YOY walleye. The biggest catch is 84 walleye.

The trawls also reveal the lake's diversity -- a burbot, a quillback carpsucker and a chestnut lamprey, all native fishes, are pulled aboard.

The catch also includes many dozens of black crappie and yellow perch, an indication of greater weed growth in the lake. Every fish is recorded, adding another chapter to an already rich book.

The biological data gets support from other sources. Kampke relates stories from friends and fellow anglers.

"I hear it from people who grew up on the lake, fishing fanatics from ages 40 to 80," says Kampke. "They say right now these are the good old days. We've had better fishing for some species at some times, but never for as many things as we do today."

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