– Walleye anglers on Lake Mille Lacs this spring will face the most restrictive regulations and lowest allowable harvest in history in an effort to protect the walleye population.

And despite the restrictions, there’s a chance anglers won’t be allowed to keep any walleyes later in the summer.

“The odds are pretty good that sometime during open water season, it will go to catch-and-release,’’ said Don Pereira, Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief.

To avoid or postpone that scenario, other restrictions aimed at reducing the walleye harvest might be tried, including extending a night fishing ban, restricting the use of leeches and nightcrawlers, or reducing the current two-fish bag limit to one fish.

“I understand these are lousy alternatives, but catch-and-release is a lousy alternative, too,’’ Tom Jones, DNR treaty specialist, told about 50 citizens and members of the Mille Lacs Input Group at a heated meeting last week near Garrison. “We’re caught between a rock and a hard place.’’

Many in the group of resort owners, fishing guides and other local business owners received the news bitterly.

“This is devastating,’’ fumed John Odle, owner of Rocky Reef Resort. “It’s going to affect the whole economy. There are businesses being lost every year on this lake. Our livelihoods are in your hands.’’

At the meeting held Thursday, input members handed out and took their own four-question survey, which showed overwhelming support that the percentages of fish allocated to bands are unfairly high and should be changed, that band gillnetting of spawning walleyes should be stopped, and that DNR should legally challenge tribal harvest based on conservation and health and human safety concerns.

“Our input is important,’’ said Joe Fellegy of Baxter, who handed out the survey.

Pereira said the DNR has to manage the fish population within the constraints of Indian treaty and federal legislation. He and some business owners said that while the tight walleye regulations are painful, the lake remains an attractive one for anglers.

“We have a world-class smallmouth bass fishery,’’ said Mike Christensen, who, with his wife, Margie, owns Hunter Winfield’s Resort. “Yeah, the walleyes are down, but where else can you catch 24- to 27-inch fish on a consistent basis?’’

Said Margie Christensen: “We have a lot of people who just want to catch fish.’’

“It’s still a spectacular lake,’’ Pereira said.

Harvest lowered again

Despite tight regulations and a record-low harvest last year, the lake continued to lose more spawning walleyes than it gained. So the DNR and Chippewa bands recently decided the safe walleye harvest quota this year was 40,000 pounds — the lowest ever. That’s 20,000 pounds below last year and an 84 percent decline from the 250,000 pounds allowed in 2013.

The bands’ share is 11,400 pounds, and the state’s share is 28,600 pounds. Last year, the state’s share was 42,900 pounds, and anglers harvested 23,650 pounds.

If the DNR retained last year’s walleye regulations, which allowed anglers to keep two fish between 18 and 20 inches, with one over 28 inches, officials said there would be a 96 percent chance of exceeding the harvest quota. Jones said a 19- to 21-inch harvest slot, with one fish over 28 inches, and extending the night ban until Aug. 1 still would result in a 78 percent chance the quota would be exceeded.

So he asked the group to consider other options to reduce harvest, including:

• Extend the 10 p.m. night fishing ban to the entire season.

•  Start the night fishing ban at 8 p.m. and run it all season.

• Allow only circle hooks to be used with live bait, to reduce hooking mortality.

• Prohibit the use of leeches, or leeches and crawlers.

• Reduce the bag limit to one fish.

None of the options was palatable. The 10 p.m. season-long night fishing ban had the most support in the group, followed by the one-fish bag limit and a season-long night fishing ban that would start at 8 p.m.

“An unknown is what degree would these restrictions result in a drop of fishing effort?’’ Pereira said later.

Some group members asked DNR officials whether bands still would net this spring even if the state imposed catch-and-release walleye regulations on the lake.

“I don’t know,’’ Pereira said. “It would be reasonable to ask them.’’

Odle, the resort owner, said he would support starting the season with catch-and-release regulations, rather than change the regs in the middle of summer. “My people will come,’’ he said. But others feared anglers will go elsewhere if they can’t keep fish for a meal.

Pereira said strong walleye reproduction in 2013 — the first strong “year class” since 2008 — offers encouragement, but he said it could take years for the lake’s walleye population to recover. The root cause of the problem remains uncertain. But increasing water clarity has possibly caused numerous effects, Pereira said, including making young walleyes more vulnerable to predation.

The DNR intends to talk to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about possibly reducing the lake’s cormorant population. Officials believe the fish-eaters might be having an impact. Climate change and the invasion of zebra mussels and spiny waterfleas also impact the lake, Pereira said.

He said DNR officials will consider the options and set Mille Lacs walleye regulations by the end of the month.

 

doug.smith@startribune.com

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib