Saying the Department of Natural Resources couldn’t have designed a better plan to wipe out Lake Mille Lacs walleyes than the one it has implemented since 1998, a group of Mille Lacs sport anglers and a resort operator sued the agency Thursday.
A petition filed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals alleges a state constitutional amendment requires the DNR to consider the cultural heritage that has developed around more than a century of walleye fishing on Mille Lacs before issuing rules affecting the lake’s anglers.
Particularly irksome, said Minneapolis lawyer Erick Kaardal, is the DNR’s recent edict prohibiting fishing on Mille Lacs between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. from May 12 to Dec. 1, which Kaardal said was administered without consideration of the lake’s walleye fishing heritage.
“We think the DNR has to be responsible for their actions,” Kaardal said. “And their actions over the past 10 years have destroyed this crown jewel of the nation.
“We want Mille Lacs to become the lake it once was.”
The DNR hasn’t reviewed the lawsuit and had no comment, said spokesman Chris Niskanen.
The Mille Lacs walleye population is at or near all-time lows, and the lake’s total 2014 walleye harvest quota is only 60,000 pounds — a 90 percent cutback from the 600,000 pounds allowed just 10 years ago.
The quota is the smallest since sport anglers and eight Chippewa bands began splitting the lake’s “safe harvest” in 1998.
Anglers will get 42,900 pounds, with 17,100 reserved for the bands.
Typically, the bands — two from Minnesota, six from Wisconsin — harvest their fish in spring, while walleyes are spawning.
“Mille Lacs is the only lake in the nation where fish are allowed to be netted while spawning,” said Bill Eno, who owns Twin Pines Resort on Mille Lacs and is party to the lawsuit, along with former resort owner Fred Dally and the groups Save Mille Lacs Sportfishing and Proper Economic Resource Management.
Twin Pines is among Mille Lacs businesses that operate large fishing launches on the lake, on which as many as 20 or more anglers pay to fish. Typically, Eno said, his launches leave the dock at 8 p.m. and return at midnight — the most productive fishing hours for walleyes, he said.
“But under the DNR’s new rule, I’d have to leave the dock at 6 and quit fishing about 9:30, because I couldn’t be on the lake past 10,” he said. “I’d miss the best fishing time, and a lot of my customers who come from the Twin Cities couldn’t get to the lake to leave at 6.”
Mille Lacs anglers are limited to two walleyes between 18 and 20 inches this year. But fish that size will be difficult to catch, the DNR says, because they are relatively few in number. Also, baitfish are plentiful in Mille Lacs this year, and as a result, the bite is expected to be slow.
Kaardahl is hoping the appeals court will rule before the state’s May 10 open water fishing season begins.
“We want the court to throw out the DNR’s recent rule prohibiting night fishing [and establishing other Mille Lacs fishing restrictions], and instruct the DNR to deliver findings of fact about the lake’s walleye fishing heritage before it offers new rules,” he said.
Eno said at a recent DNR meeting, a nighttime fishing ban found no support among Mille Lacs resort and business owners. Yet the DNR implemented it anyway.
In the same rule, the agency increased the lake’s northern pike limit to 10. Similarly, the Mille Lacs smallmouth bass season was extended and its limit relaxed.
“More liberal northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations speak to the fact these species can withstand additional pressure because their populations are at or near record highs,” DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said at the time.
But it’s not the state’s place “to impose a government-designed fishing heritage on the people,” Kaardahl said. “My clients have been told they should market smallmouth bass and northern pike fishing. But Mille Lacs’ fishing heritage centers on walleyes.”
A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed the Chippewa bands reserved off-reservation hunting and fishing rights in an 1837 treaty in a 12-county region of east-central Minnesota, including Lake Mille Lacs.
Subsequent federal court orders require the state and the bands to effectively co-manage the region’s resources.
The petition for judgment filed with the state appeals court, whatever its fate, will have no effect on the federal rulings or orders.
Kaardal argues, however, that the DNR is obligated to consider not only the federal court rulings in its management of Mille Lacs but to consider also the 1998 state constitution amendment affirming that “hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good.”
The DNR is expected to file a response to the appeals court.