Catch-and-release summer walleye season announced for Lake Mille Lacs
ST. PAUL —Anglers catching walleyes on Mille Lacs Lake will have to throw them all back again this summer.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Monday announced its summer 2018 regulations for the big central Minnesota lake that includes catch-and-release fishing all season, and no night fishing from May 14 through the rest of the year.
It's the third consecutive summer with no keeping Mille Lacs walleyes as the DNR tries to protect as many of the lake's walleyes as possible to bolster the population back to historic levels.
The DNR said the walleye population in the lake is getting better and as such there will be no midsummer walleye fishing ban this year, as there was in 2017.
Mille Lacs' walleyes have been in decline for nearly two decades, the DNR notes, thanks to a barrage of changes in the ecosystem, including vastly increased water clarity and decreased walleye productivity; the introduction of zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and spiny water fleas; a changing zooplankton community that may be altering the aquatic food web; and declines in certain fish walleyes eat, including tullibee.
"Improving the walleye population on Mille Lacs is a top priority for the DNR," said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner, in a news release. "We want to see as much walleye fishing on Mille Lacs as possible this year."
DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira said DNR analyses, as well as external review indicate the walleye spawning stock increased significantly in Mille Lacs and the lake can support a larger safe harvest level of walleye in 2018, as long as a catch and release rule is in place.
"Implementing a catch-and-release policy this season is important not only for the sustainable growth of Mille Lacs' walleye population, but for area anglers, businesses, and Mille Lacs area communities," Pereira said. "We want anglers to get out and enjoy the abundant fishing opportunities on Mille Lacs."
Pereira added a catch and release season should also allow the state to account for a portion of the excess walleye kill in 2016 and 2017. With catch and release measures in place this summer, some of the fish caught and returned to the water may die, a condition known as hooking mortality. The likelihood of fish suffering hooking mortality increases as water temperatures warm. Fish that die as a result of hooking mortality are counted against the state's harvest allocation.
"Today's news regarding Mille Lacs Lake strikes a balance between the need to allow Mother Nature additional breathing room to rejuvenate this world-class walleye fishery and necessary support for the local community, which depends on a lake open to fishing through the summer," Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said in a news release. "There remains disagreement among experts as to whether the announced summer regulations should be more restrictive or that the catch and release approach is too conservative. While I am not an expert in this area, it appears that keeping the lake open for catch and release versus a more restrictive approach, risking shutting down the lake, is a reasonable compromise."
The state of Minnesota and Chippewa bands that cooperatively manage Mille Lacs Lake have yet to set the safe harvest level for 2018 and discussions are ongoing. These discussions follow the process outlined in protocols and stipulations arising from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1999 to uphold the bands' treaty rights.
In June 2017, the DNR announced a new external review team of scientists would take a fresh look at Lake Mille Lacs walleye fishery. Led by walleye expert Dr. Chris Vandergoot of the U.S. Geological Survey, this review showed the DNR's survey methods met or exceeded accepted best practices, and that interpretations of changes in the lake are correct. A summary of the team's conclusions and recommendations will be available later this year. DNR staff are currently exploring the feasibility of implementing some of these recommendations.
However, as the state has tightened fishing regulations on Mille Lacs in recent years, resort owners and others have increasingly voiced skepticism over the low estimates the state has provided to justify lower walleye harvests. They say the dramatic decline suggested by the state doesn't reflect the abundance of fish they see every day.
Vandergoot's study focused only on the methods the DNR uses to gather information. That frustrated some at a February meeting of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, according to an MPR News story. At that time committee members and members of the public wanted answers about how the DNR is using this data to estimate the lake's total walleye numbers and set regulations.
"I thought it was somewhat superficial and didn't really address the majority of the questions that we asked about," said lake resident Rick Wigand, who at the February meeting, told MPR.
"I want to know how we can assess the population of fish in the lake because we don't think that it's been portrayed as what it really is," Wigand said. "Because the community up here is so dependent on the walleye as our economy. And so that way of life is kind of being destroyed."
Dean Hanson, a member of the advisory committee and owner of Agate Bay Resort, questioned whether the gill nets used by the DNR are in the right locations to catch walleye given the lake's changing nature.
While he didn't disagree with some of the conclusions from the DNR and Vandergroot, Hanson told MPR the data provided doesn't appear to match what people are seeing out on the lake.
The DNR is promoting other species in Mille Lacs Lake for game fishing, noting the lake is nationally recognized as one of the nation's top smallmouth bass and muskellunge fisheries. In 2017, Mille Lacs was named the No. 1 bass fishing lake in the nation by Bassmaster Magazine. The lake hosted the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship in 2016 and 2017.
Bass season opens May 12, but is catch and release only through May 25. Beginning May 26, Mille Lacs' bag limit will be four bass per angler. All smallmouth and largemouth bass between 17 and 21 inches must be immediately released. Anglers may keep only one bass over 21 inches.
Mille Lacs Lake has special regulations that exempt it from the new statewide northern pike zone regulations. The northern pike season opens May 12 and anglers may keep up to five fish. All pike between 30 and 40 inches must be immediately released. Only one northern over 40 inches may be included in the bag limit of five.
For muskellunge, the season opens June 2, with the statewide rules of a one fish bag and a minimum length of 54 inches.
Beginning June 2, anglers may fish for muskellunge and northern pike at night, but may only possess and use artificial lures or sucker minnows longer than 8 inches. Bowfishing for rough fish also is allowed at night, but possession of angling equipment is not allowed and only rough fish may be in possession.
More information about fishing on Lake Mille Lacs, ongoing DNR management and research, and Mille Lacs area recreation opportunities is available on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/millelacslake.