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July 20, 2019

Jacob friede/lakeland times

DNR biologist Zach Woiak (foreground) and DNR fisheries supervisor John Kubisiak demonstrate to students of the Wildlife Ecology Summer Field Course at Kemp Station how to pull in a fyke net.
Jacob friede/lakeland times

DNR biologist Zach Woiak (foreground) and DNR fisheries supervisor John Kubisiak demonstrate to students of the Wildlife Ecology Summer Field Course at Kemp Station how to pull in a fyke net.
5/25/2019 7:30:00 AM
UW-Madison students get northern exposure at Kemp Station
Jacob Friede
Of The Lakeland Times

No one is having a more wild time at camp this summer than the University of Wisconsin-Madison students currently staying at Kemp Station south of Woodruff. They are taking a two-week Wildlife Ecology Summer Field Course at the research center on the shores of Lake Tomahawk where they will eat, sleep, and breathe on the wild side. That's because the campus is carved out of a quiet piece of quintessential Northwoods.

The students will get well acquainted with their surroundings during their stay up north. According to coordinator and instructor of the course Jamie Nack, extension senior wildlife outreach specialist for UW-Madison, "They are broken into four groups. Each group is assigned a parcel of property and they're expected to complete a flora and fauna inventory of the site and actually write up a management plan. So they're using techniques that we demonstrate, and then they go and deploy on property, and also learning about forest wildlife-habitat relations and developing a management plan."

Mace Drumright, a wildlife ecology major participating in the field course, has enjoyed being able to put the knowledge he's gained from the classroom into practical use.

"We're looking at vegetation cover, what types of vegetation, what wildlife is found there. We look at tracks and trail cams and stuff like that to try to get an idea of what lives on the land," Drumright said. "A lot of us have taken classes in identifying animals and identifying plants and learning some management techniques, but this allows us to actually practically use that knowledge."

Another part of the field course is a series of guest speakers and seminars featuring local biologists and natural resource managers and experts who put their knowledge to use on a daily basis.

"While we're up here, as part of that course, our goal is to interact with some of the professionals in the area that maybe don't make it down to Madison as often, or at least take advantage of learning about northern Wisconsin habitats and what's going on," Nack said.

Local experts

Last Thursday the students met two men who are right in the thick of what's going on, especially when it comes to the fisheries of the Northwoods.

John Kubisiak, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) fisheries supervisor, was the DNR's Oneida County fisheries biologist for 14 years before becoming the fisheries supervisor for the last two. Zach Woiak, the DNR's current Oneida County fisheries biologist, has been at his post for two years after spending three years as a fisheries biologist at Ft. McCoy.

They were at Kemp Station to talk fish ecology and fish management, and they could not have had a better backdrop than Lake Tomahawk or a better issue than the Minocqua chain to illustrate fisheries management.

The chain is currently under an extensive rehabilitation project which has included all aspects of fisheries management: surveys, stocking, habitat improvement, and regulation.

It all began with population surveys. They showed a dramatic decline in the adult walleye population from 1992 to 2015. During that time the adult walleye per acre on Lake Minocqua went from 5.6 to one.

Woiak explained to students how a population survey is done. In the initial marking phase, fish are netted in fyke nets, fin-clipped, measured, and spine sampled before being released. The second phase is the recapture run, which is done by electrofishing. This is done at night along the shoreline to gauge the proportion of marked to unmarked fish. During the electrofishing, the fish are stunned into swimming toward the electric current established by anodes hanging off a boom in the front of the boat. They are then easily captured when entranced. The data from the two phases of the mark and recapture allow for a thorough population estimate.

In the spring when the fish go shallow to spawn, Woiak said, adult fish populations are surveyed, which, for walleye, are 15 inches or greater in length. In the fall, young of the year, or age 0 fish and one year old fish are counted.

"If you're going to have big fish you need little fish," Woiak said. "And fall recruitment surveys, which is for the young of year fish, is what we're looking at to really see how the fish that hatched in the spring, how they made it through the summer and what they look like going into the fall."

It was young of the year surveys which showed biologists the Minocqua chain was struggling to recruit young fish into the adult population.

As part of the solution, a stocking plan for the chain was developed.

"Part of my job is to figure out which stocking style or stocking strategy is going to work best in the system," Woiak explained. "For example, out here on the Minocqua chain, we're stocking large fingerlings at 10 per acre. A lot of that is analyzing what we find in our surveys and figuring out does this lake need to be stocked and if it does what strategy do we want to approach it with."

Woiak reported to the students the seven inch fingerlings which have been stocked in the chain have been doing well.

"Now you can see those stocked year classes showing up into the fishery," he said. "So they're not recruited into the adult population yet, but they are in the fishery and hopefully they're going to make it into the adult fishery."

That's the good news. The bad news is naturally hatched fry are struggling, and, to Kubisiak, the reason why is a mystery.

"We're seeing that the walleye are laying eggs, the eggs are hatching, and we're catching the fry early in the summer, and then sometime during the midsummer period they disappear. So we're not sure why they disappear," he said.

While the biologists try to answer that question, a lot of faith and effort is put in the surviving fingerlings. But the little fish aren't the only ones getting a boost. The adult walleye population on the Minocqua chain has been getting help from another aspect of fisheries management: regulation.

Woiak explained to students that as part of an agreement between Walleyes for Tomorrow, the Lac du Flambeau Band, the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), and the WDNR, no harvest of walleye, whether by angling or spearing, has been allowed on the chain since 2015.

"We have our survey data and part of our job is to analyze that survey data and see if our fisheries regulations are working out there and if not, make the appropriate management decisions to make those changes," Woiak said. "Regulation is another tool we have to help manage our fisheries."

After speaking, Woiak and Kubisiak demonstrated to the students a fyke net harvest as well as the data collection of the captured fish.

A fyke net is anchored to the shore with a line and a fence-like fetch. The fish follow that fetch through a frame into a tunneled net, which is tied at the end.

In the net there were bluegills, pumpkinseeds, perch, walleye, a largemouth bass, a dogfish, and a musky. Woiak and Kubisiak showed the students how they clip the fins, take a spine sample, and measure the fish.

After the data collection, all fish were safely returned to the waters of Lake Tomahawk, itself part of the Minocqua chain, the source of so much mystery and target of so much hope.

"There's no smoking gun," Woiak said about the chain's walleye decline to the crowd of young students who, with skills honed at Kemp Station, may one day be charged with finding one.

Jacob Friede may be reached at or

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