Lake trout numbers remain low in BWCA’s Pine Lake, other species faring better
On a recent September morning, a trio of researchers and biologists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Grand Marais traveled to the end of the Arrowhead Trail on the shores of McFarland Lake.
The purpose of the trip was to see how the fish population is doing in Pine Lake, a massive body of water located entirely within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Walleye, lake trout, burbot, smallmouth bass, lake whitefish, northern pike, and several other species live in Pine. In recent years, Pine has become known for its smallmouth and whitefish populations, following years of steady decline in lake trout and walleye.
A flowage from Pine spills into McFarland, which means paddlers must skirt through a small channel to enter the wilderness. On this day, there would be no paddling. The DNR has a longstanding agreement with the Forest Service to use motorboats on certain lakes in the BWCA to conduct fish surveys.
When it comes to lake trout in the deep, clear waters, of Pine, the DNR has worked diligently over the years to protect the laker population in the lake. Stocking of yearling lake trout was done in 2016, 2019 and again in 2022. However, the lake trout population remains low in Pine. Last year, in a decision that some local anglers continue to question, stocking of lake trout was discontinued in all BWCA lakes in Cook County.
This year, during the course of a week, which included setting a total of 12 nets at various locations across Pine, the DNR caught only eight lake trout. None of these fish were stocked lake trout, according to DNR Grand Marais Area Fisheries Supervisor EJ Isaac.
“Many people are disappointed that our lake trout stocking program has ceased,” Isaac told WTIP. “Pine Lake may be an example of where stocking does not work and why it was discontinued.”
Isaac said stocking fish in Pine using hatchery reared fish from the Mountain Lake strain, another BWCA lake, did not work.
In terms of walleye, Isaac said the 2023 numbers “were up nicely” in Pine. The total number of walleye caught in the gill nets were nearly double of what the DNR saw in the last two assessments in Pine, according to the DNR. Fish across all size ranges were found in the September survey, he added.
During the year’s lake survey, one of the fish found in the first net pulled Sept. 12 was a healthy looking 22-inch walleye. After pulling the fish from the net, the survey team, including Matt Weberg and Ben Schleppenbach, took some quick samples and then returned the walleye to the lake, where it darted back to the depths of Pine. Isaac said the DNR fisheries staff make a concentrated effort to release any fish caught in the gill nets back to the water.
And while walleye numbers were up this year compared to recent surveys done in Pine, it is nowhere near its historic peaks. During the 1980s and 90s, Pine was known as one of the better walleye lakes in Cook County. That reputation has largely faded over time, and the DNR data supports such a notion.
One species doing well in Pine at this time is lake whitefish.
“Lake whitefish catch rates continue to be very high,” Isaac said. “The population is doing quite well, nearly as high as they have ever been.”
After the survey work was complete for 2023, which took place from Sept. 11-15, Isaac said Pine Lake “seems to be doing well, supporting good populations of walleye nearshore and lake whitefish offshore.”
To learn more about the rest of the fish survey work on Pine conducted in mid-September, listen to the complete audio report shared below.