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A FISHY EXPERIMENT...Escanaba studies angler harvests

By Dick Ellis

Reader Note: When reading any of Dick Ellis’s 1200 Wisconsin journeys taken over two decades as a syndicated columnist, be sure to check current regulations when planning the trip yourself. Google Escanaba Lake Experimental Fishing to read 2012 reports.

Just maybe, lake scenery from a postcard and a good chance at simply catching walleyes actually trumps the opportunity to take Wisconsin’s most sought after gamefish home for the frying pan.  That surely is a debate for the individual angler in boat or back room, but Dan Moericke, his son Steve and Dan Platta of Wausau had no problem Sunday releasing fat walleye after walleye back into Escanaba Lake, a state experimental water with a one fish, 28-inch minimum size limit.

It didn’t hurt that an undeveloped, picturesque shoreline surrounded us and offered the feel of Canadian isolation instead of Wisconsin’s own Northern Highland State Forest.  It didn’t hurt either that at morning’s end, a handful of fat perch and a lone, plump pike did head home with us destined for a skillet rendezvous.  On Escanaba, the pain of walleye filet release is eased by no-bag and no-size limit regulations for other fish pleasing to the palette.  For all species on Escanaba, there is also no season closure.

Escanaba is part of the Northern Highland Fishery Research Area (NHFRA). Formerly known as the Five Lakes Research Project, the NHFRA was established by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1946 to study the effects of angling on fish populations. There are five lakes in the NHFRA which have been continuously managed as experimental research waters including Escanaba (293 acres), Nebish (98 acres), Pallette (176 acres), Spruce (16.5 acres), and Mystery (16 acres).

Escanaba Fishing Escanaba Fishing Escanaba Fishing
Dan Moericke takes a perch on Escanaba Lake, one of five lakes involved in a decades' long experiment in northern Wisconsin in part evaluating the impact of angler harvest on fisheries. Steve Moericke of Wausau prepares to release a nice walleye on Escanaba Lake.  The state experimental water has a 28-inch minimum on walleyes.

According to an annual report on the project published by the state and picked up for this column at the DNR station during check-in, the lakes were chosen for research because they were typical of the different types of lakes in northeastern Wisconsin and because their location favored control of anglers by a compulsory permit system.  Angler harvest on all five lakes has been continually monitored since project inception 66 years ago and is thought to be the longest such record of compulsory creel data in the world.

Escanaba is a 293 acre lake offering no bag or size limit for yellow perch, muskellunge, northern pike or smallmouth bass.  Walleye, which for decades had also been a harvestable species without size or bag limits, changed to the one fish per day, 28-inch minimum regulation on May 3, 2003 according to the annual report.

“That really makes it a catch and release lake now for walleyes,” said Dan Moericke.  “For years they also had no size or bag for walleyes.  They must have learned what they wanted to learn…or maybe they needed a federal grant…because they switched to no harvest on walleyes except on those biggest fish.  It’s not really the same as the fishing pressure received on other lakes because there is no shoreline development and you can’t fish here at night.  But the aesthetics are very nice and the fishing is good.”

Escanaba Fishing Escanaba Fishing
Father and son anglers Steve and Dan Moericke of Wausau are silhouetted working Escanaba Lake in Vilas County.
Dan Platta of Wausau shows a good Escanaba Lake walleye taken on a slip bobber and released. The state experimental water has a 28-inch minimum on walleyes.

Indeed it is. After checking in at the DNR station, a mandatory exercise before launching and when checking out on each of the five lakes, we waited our turn at the Escanaba landing. Another boat with anglers looking for any fish that would cooperate, two musky fishermen, and a guide leading clients put in before us.  The musky anglers said the fishing for the Wisconsin King is very good on Escanaba, with 45 and 46 inch fish caught and released from their boat in 2007.  Musky season also doesn’t close on the experimental lake and harvest unrestricted although musky anglers would rather give mouth to mouth to a fish than keep one.

Action was immediate and stayed fast over the lake’s lone weedbed.  Fat walleyes to 17 inches, impressive perch, pike and a smallmouth kept the angler’s rods and my camera busy in erratic weather with high winds. Dan Moericke, who has fished Escanaba periodically for two decades, would have preferred to work familiar structure seeing close attention from the guide, but minded his fisherman’s manners and kept our boat at a more than respectable distance. A Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron and a trio of not at all shy loons added to the setting. In addition to catching fish, as new friends we had time to simply shoot the Wisconsin fisherman’s bull.

Roommates Steve Moericke and Dan Platta are recent high honors graduates of UW-Eau Claire, where Platta earned triple degrees in accounting, finance and economics and Moericke earned a finance degree. They also took learning the Chippewa River to another “degree”, and with a lot of time on the water and non-classroom related sweat gained considerable expertise on that Wisconsin vein in close proximity to campus.

Escanaba Fishing Escanaba Fishing
Dan Moericke used a jig and minnow to catch a half-dozen walleyes like this on Escanaba, a state experimental water in Vilas County.  With a one-fish, 28 inch minimum walleye limit, the fish were released. Several perch and a pike were kept. Although walleyes have a 28-inch minimum, one fish limit on the experimental Escanaba Lake, other game fish have no minimum and no bag limit. This pike landed by Dan Moericke of Wausau is destined for the frying pan.

“I have been fishing with Dad since I was one or two,” said Steve Moericke.  “You get to college and you begin to do things on your own.  I met Dan and we started figuring out the Chippewa.  We both worked at Outdoor Rec on campus.  Our manager grew up on the Chip and he really helped us learn how to fish it.”

Because of the diversity and number of fish, Dan Platta said that fishing the Chippewa was like playing the lottery.  “You throw your line out there and you never know what’s going to be hitting.”

Both students are already entering the real world and its real work.  Not at all to be confused with the “reel” world that lakes like Escanaba offer.  It didn’t hurt at all to wallow for a morning in that world with someone like Dan Moericke leading the way. He’s good on the water, and his expertise at finding and catching fish was born simply with a love for fishing.  By the time we headed in, this reporter had been given more fish photo opportunities in two hours than might come in a more normal week.

At check out, our perch and pike harvest added to the ongoing, hefty creel census data being compiled year after year by the DNR.  According to the NHFRA most recent annual report covering April 16, 2006 through April 16, 2007 yellow perch continue to make up the bulk of the harvest from Escanaba with an annual long-term average yellow perch harvest of 3,282.  No walleyes were harvested as expected during that time period, with 20 pike, three muskies, 70 smallmouth and four largemouth taken home.

Overall during that one year time period, a total of 3,704 anglers fished a total of 12,054 hours on the NHFRA lakes. The large majority of anglers were Wisconsin residents.  To find the research lakes in the Northern Highland State Forest, take Highway M four miles south from Boulder Junction.  Turn left at Nebish Road and continue approximately five miles. Follow lake signs.