We evaluated the dynamics of walleye Sander vitreus population size structure, as indexed by the proportional size distribution (PSD) of quality-length fish, in Escanaba Lake during 1967–2003 and in 204 other lakes in northern Wisconsin during 1990–2011. We estimated PSD from angler-caught walleyes in Escanaba Lake and from spring electrofishing in 204 other lakes, and then related PSD to annual estimates of recruitment to age-3, length at age 3, and annual angling exploitation rate. In Escanaba Lake during 1967–2003, annual estimates of PSD were highly dynamic, growth (positively) explained 35% of PSD variation, recruitment explained only 3% of PSD variation, and exploitation explained only 7% of PSD variation. In 204 other northern Wisconsin lakes during 1990–2011, PSD varied widely among lakes, recruitment (negatively) explained 29% of PSD variation, growth (positively) explained 21% of PSD variation, and exploitation explained only 4% of PSD variation. We conclude that population size structure was most strongly driven by recruitment and growth, rather than exploitation, in northern Wisconsin walleye populations. Studies of other species over wide spatial and temporal ranges of recruitment, growth, and mortality are needed to determine which dynamic rate most strongly influences population size structure of other species. Our findings indicate a need to be cautious about assuming exploitation is a strong driver of walleye population size structure.
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Effects of recruitment, growth, and exploitation on walleye population size structure in northern Wisconsin lakes