Could removing bass, panfish from Northwoods lake reverse declining walleye numbers? First-ever study seeks answerSubmitted: 07/17/2018
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

Could removing bass, panfish from Northwoods lake reverse declining walleye numbers? First-ever study seeks answer
SPRINGSTEAD, IRON COUNTY - Every single day, graduate student Holly Embke and her team go fishing. They fish on the same lake every day, pulling in hundreds or thousands of fish.

None of the fish are kept to eat or mount. Embke and her team just want the bass and panfish out of McDermott Lake in Iron County.

"If I could snap my fingers and have them all go away, that would save us a lot of effort," Embke said Tuesday.

Embke is a graduate student at the UW-Madison Trout Lake Station in Boulder Junction. She's trying to virtually drain the lake of bass and panfish as part of a hypothesis on walleye decline in Northwoods lakes. It's the first time something like it has ever been tried.

Researchers know warming lake temperatures and changing habitats have led to a reduction in walleye and an increase in bass and panfish populations. Embke wants to know whether another factor, interaction between the species, plays a role.

"The thought is that, potentially, the panfish and bass just are in so much higher numbers than walleye that they're monopolizing resources and outcompeting those really early life stages of walleye," she said. "We are removing bass and panfish from the lake to see if that opens a window for walleye to increase their population."

McDermott Lake's walleye population used to be healthy and self-sustaining, but not anymore. In fact, the team hasn't found a single young walleye in its comprehensive system of nets and traps.

"People have talked about how this lake used to be a really walleye-dominant lake," Embke said. "It no longer is."

Don Kreft has seen the change. He's had a home on McDermott Lake for nearly 20 years.

"All of a sudden, it seemed like the walleye population was dropping off, and as that dropped off, then you [saw] a resurgence of the bass population," Kreft said.

Kreft, like other people living on the lake, is eager to see what the study finds. Researchers say they've had overwhelming support from nearby landowners for their survey.

"This project is a big undertaking, but it has the potential to give a lot of really cool answers for a lot of different problems," Embke said. "We also don't know if it will work. That's something I want to emphasize. This is an experiment."

The team keeps some of fish they remove for further study. The rest go to wildlife rehab centers, serving as food for birds and other animals.

The study on McDermott Lake goes until 2021.

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