Walleyes are biting on Mille Lacs, which is typical for this time of year. But little else about the lake and its fishery has been normal this spring and early summer.
Last winter, the Department of Natural Resources announced that beginning with the May 11 opener, anglers would be allowed only two walleyes from Mille Lacs, measuring between 18 and 20 inches.
Too few small — mostly male — walleyes exist in the big lake, officials believe. So last year’s four-walleye limit had to be cut, and the harvest slot changed from walleyes less than 17 inches (with one over 28), as it was in 2012, to those between 18-20 inches (a trophy is also allowed this year).
The limit reduction from four to two no doubt has adversely affected angler effort on Mille Lacs, which saw an all-time low number of fishing hours recorded in May, according to the DNR.
But a bigger deal in the angler no-show surely has been the weather, beginning opening weekend, when the lake was still ice-covered. Conditions during the remainder of May were mostly horrendous as well.
“Mille Lacs has recorded only 230,000 hours” of fishing effort to date this year, said Area Fisheries Supervisor Rick Bruesewitz. “In a typical year on Mille Lacs, about 100,000 hours of angler effort are recorded on opening weekend alone.”
All of May saw only 85,000 angler hours on Mille Lacs.
The good news, Bruesewitz said, is that June angler effort, while less than it was last year on Mille Lacs, is similar to that seen in 2009 through 2011.
Amazingly, only 37,148 pounds of walleyes have been harvested from Mille Lacs, a figure that includes a small amount of post-release mortality — an estimate that has to be included in sport anglers’ 2013 Mille Lacs walleye quota of 178,500 pounds.
That figure is half what the sport fishing quota was in 2012. The quota assigned to the eight Chippewa bands that spear and mostly net Mille Lacs has been similarly reduced this year.
The dramatic cutbacks were necessary, the DNR said, because the lake’s walleye population is at a 40-year low.
Bruesewitz said about 10 walleyes are being caught this summer on Mille Lacs for every one that measures between 18 and 20 inches. So far, he said, about 240,000 pounds of walleyes have been caught and released by Mille Lacs anglers.
“That’s fairly low,” he said, and is likely a result not only of the relatively few anglers fishing the lake, but also the inclement fishing conditions.
Anglers who have fished Mille Lacs regularly this spring and summer say walleyes less than 19 inches are nearly impossible to find.
“I’ve probably had between 350 and 400 walleyes caught in my boat this year, and only three have been under 18 inches,” guide Steve Fellegy said. “And none under 17 inches.”
The DNR had asked the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) to target larger fish this spring in their bands’ Mille Lacs walleye harvests, hoping to relieve pressure on the lake’s smaller fish.
GLIFWC biologists responded by asking band members to spear more Mille Lacs walleyes, and net fewer. But in the end, weather trumped all: Late ice-out on Mille Lacs prevented the bands from accessing the lake effectively, and their walleye harvest was minimal.
So far this summer, walleyes have been caught by Mille Lacs anglers at a rate of .3 per hour, Bruesewitz said, which isn’t bad. Mayflies are abundant in and around the lake now, which tends to slow action. Anglers should also be aware the lake’s water is very clear, and that stealthy, long-line approaches are necessary to keep fish from spooking, particularly in shallow areas.
Meanwhile, the harvest of Mille Lacs smallmouth bass has been minimal so far this summer. Creel surveys show only 553 smallies have been taken from the lake, with another 32,000 caught and released.
The DNR had been criticized by bass anglers for increasing the Mille Lacs smallie limit to six, with a protected slot of 17-20 inches (one allowed over 20) from its previous limit of one over 21 inches, in an attempt to steer pressure away from the lake’s walleyes. The DNR’s intent, in part, is to attract anglers to the lake, given the expected drop-off among some anglers following the walleye limit reduction from four to two.
Mille Lacs has developed into a trophy smallmouth bass fishery, with few peers in the state or nationally, and some bass anglers worried the DNR was sacrificing that fishery to boost Mille Lacs area businesses.
So far the smallmouth population doesn’t appear to be threatened, Bruesewitz said.