WALKER, Minn. (WCCO) – The magic call of a lone loon on Leech Lake is something to behold this time of year. It’s the picture of serenity; the very reason Minnesotans put up with our long winters. The ice is out and loons are back. Welcome, to another season of fishing.
“Fishing is a big draw, it’s the biggest draw,” exclaimed longtime resort owner Roy Huddle.
Since 1928, Huddle’s Resort on Leech Lake has been renting cabins to tourists and anglers. It is, without doubt, the quintessential northern escape. Perhaps it is the full stringers of fish that keep his customers coming back for more.
“Fishing — let’s just rate it number one as the biggest draw and the walleye as the king of the fishery,” said Roy.
Roy and his wife Kay said that walleye is their “bread and butter.” But 10 years ago, an explosion of cormorants on the lake depleted the walleye. Both fishing and business on Leech Lake suffered as anglers chose to go elsewhere.
Local fishing guide Larry Anderson remembers, “We lost a lot of people who had been coming here for years and years traditionally. Those people just stopped coming.”
“Those were the tough years,” added guide Ted Gwinn.
Now the two guides both agree that walleyes and fishing excitement are back.
“Wow! They’re holding that fish up there, which is ‘Get that thing in the water, get it in the water,’ and that fish is jumping around,” said Anderson, who recalls the joys of his customer’s catch.
A lot of the credit for the turnaround on Leech Lake is due to new controls on the cormorant population, tighter fishing limits and more walleye stocking.
“I don’t think if there’s a lake in Minnesota that’s had the numbers of millions of walleye fry that have been stocked into here,” said Gwinn.
Under the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources walleye management plan for Leech Lake, the state and local helpers will release another 55 million walleye fry into the lake in the next four years.
The ultimate goal is to bring it back to the point it can sustain a state of natural walleye reproduction. But this northern gem is just one of 5400 lakes the DNR manages for better fishing.
“Overall, 85 percent of all walleye come from natural reproduction,” said DNR fisheries chief Dirk Peterson.
Peterson firmly believes that 20 years of restrictive slot sizes, more catch-and-release by anglers and tighter DNR management have improved the quality of walleye fishing statewide.
However, Peterson explains that simply putting more walleye fry and fingerlings into a lake isn’t the solution to better fishing in all lakes.
“Stocking is an important strategy to create good fishing but if you’re a walleye fisherman, 45 percent of all the walleye that are caught in this state are on our 10 largest lakes, like Red Lake or Leech Lake,” he said.
Those big lakes, such as Gull, Mille Lacs, Vermillion and Winnibigosh, are pure walleye factories. The natural reproduction in perfect walleye habitat will produce more fish than anglers can catch.
That’s why the DNR strategy for expanded walleye opportunities is to target smaller waters, which have less suitable habitat for natural walleye reproduction.
“That’s a very effective technique on those lakes where natural reproduction is limited but other good habitat features are present,” Peterson said.
But there’s no question the lure of the walleye has a huge economic impact on many local economies in towns like Grand Rapids, Garrison, Alexandria and Walker.
The simple reason is that when people come to a lake and catch walleye, the chances are very good that they’ll come back and spend a boatload of money. That spending gets spread all around town at gas stations, hotels, restaurants and stores.
According to the DNR’s estimates, fishing in Minnesota is a $4.7 billion industry. That’s why opening weekend is like Christmas in May.
“The fishing opener is our season kickoff,” said Jed Shaw with the Walker Chamber of Commerce. “I mean, you can tell when it hits. It goes from actually being able to take a left turn on Main Street to not being able to turn left at all, or right for that matter, because there will be so many people in the crosswalks.”
This weekend, Roy and Kay Huddle will welcome the crowds back to their Leech Lake resort. They will no doubt be putting customers in cabins and satisfaction in their smiles.
“Fishing is definitely on its way back. It’s not what it was when it was at its peak but it’s definitely coming back,” said Roy.