Social distancing is a foreign concept between the VFW and the tip of Blackhawk Island on Lake Koshkonong this spring as hordes of anglers focus on catching as many small walleyes as the law allows before more restrictive harvest regulations kick in on April 1.

The new rules that limit harvest to walleyes and their kin to three fish with a minimum size of 18 inches is a tribute to DNR fisheries management. It also is a victory for kids of my generation who danced during the first Earth Day with tambourines and tye-dyed T-shirts 50 years ago this past Thursday.

Walleyes in the Rock River system were a rare commodity back in 1970.

The Rock was essentially a linear sewer where carp reigned supreme, “structure” was old tires and oil barrels and the facility now known as the Bark River hatchery was a major source of the problem instead of a marginal attempt at a solution, dumping sewage into the stream.

Visionary fisheries biologist Don Bush spent decades spearheading efforts into the walleye factory the Rock River system is today. Finding the easiest fishing is hardwired into Wisconsin DNA. Fisheries surveys indicate walleyes are now the most sought-after species here, with annual harvest exceeding 40% of “legal” fish.

Thirty-five percent is considered the break-over point at which a walleye population can no longer be sustained. Although the Bark River hatchery plays a significant role in maintaining this fishery, natural reproduction has even greater impact on the system.

There can be profound variance in young-of-year fish numbers created by natural spawning effort in a river system. One or two years of poor spawning would send the angling horde off to more productive waters in a very short time.

With this year’s spawn essentially coinciding with new harvest regulations, it’s a shame that countless 15- to 18-inch female walleyes are being removed from the system right now prior to attending their initial social convergence for the future.

Fortunately, the “better late than never” axiom kicked in prior to what would have been an eventual population collapse.

In just 10 days, the Wisconsin state cheer—“I GOT MINE!”—won’t echo across the Rock River valley with the frequency heard over the past several weeks.

Eighteen-inch walleyes are considerably tougher to catch than clueless, naïve 15-inch fish that are fair game today. Keeping a 15-inch walleye this afternoon has all the honor of bagging an orphaned yearling whitetail with a 7mm magnum on the second day of the annual gun deer season.

One 18-inch walleye is a perfect meal for my precious wife and I. Harvesting two such fish would mean tasty fish tacos the following day.

Filling a limit under the new guidelines would be a bad thing. One fish would end up in the freezer, creating the lame argument that there was no critical need to go fishing again tomorrow.

When I first started fishing the Rock River more than 50 years ago, a 16-foot vee bottom with bench seats and a 25-horse Evinrude was considered a serious fishing boat.

Today’s average walleye boat costs more than the first house we bought.

The American way of life has been turned on its head this month with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Countless folks who are serious about fishing have been furloughed from jobs that could justify purchase of $35,000 walleye boats.

It is profoundly difficult to enjoy fishing a river system that is truly getting better every day when you’re wondering where the next boat payment is coming from.

Take a moment to look around you. Our Rock River was once little more than a polluted sewer. It is now one of the premier walleye streams in the great state of Wisconsin.

The pandemic situation America now faces is unprecedented.

But we’re Americans. Don’t panic. Keep your line tight. We’ll get through this.

Fishing will be better and we’ll still be livin’ the dream this time next year.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at tedpeck@acegroup.cc.

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