GARRISON, MINN. – A standing-room crowd greeted Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers near here Thursday, when the agency met with the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Advisory Group and interested citizens to propose angler harvest regulations for the big lake beginning in May.
Previously, the DNR announced the 2014 Mille Lacs walleye harvest quota will be 60,000 pounds — a fraction of the 2013 quota, which was 250,000 pounds. Of the 60,000, 17,100 pounds will be allocated to eight Chippewa bands, while the remaining 42,900 pounds will be reserved for state-regulated anglers.
The dramatically lower Mille Lacs quota follows studies showing the lake's walleye population is hovering near all-time lows, and that young fish, particularly males, are underrepresented in the population.
For whatever reason, DNR officials said, young walleyes in Mille Lacs are not surviving in sustainable numbers in recent years. The last year class of walleyes in the lake that survived to maturity occurred in 2008.
"We did have a good 2013 year class of walleyes," Aitkin area fisheries supervisor Rick Bruesewitz said. "They are important to us and we will follow them closely."
Tom Jones, DNR regional fisheries treaty coordinator, presented various harvest options to the group. Only the 25 members of the advisory group were allowed to vote on which options they preferred — a vote DNR representatives promised to consider but won't be bound by.
Some of the options were intended to ensure the walleye angling quota isn't exceeded. Others, including those that encouraged higher harvests of northern pike and smallmouth bass, could possibly help the lake's walleyes, the officials said.
Options included banning night fishing, using circle hooks to reduce catch-and-release mortality, ban leeches and nightcrawlers as bait, and reducing the walleye limit to one fish between 18-20 inches.
Last year, the Mille Lacs walleye limit was two fish between 18 and 20 inches, with one over 28 inches, a possibility for the coming year as well, officials said.
Various options to encourage higher harvests of smallmouth bass, which are exploding in the lake, also were presented. Gaining the most favor was one that would allow six smallies of any size to be kept.
Interestingly, the idea of renewing northern pike spearing in Mille Lacs received an 84 percent "yes" vote.
Reducing pike numbers in the lake is seen as a possible fix to the large number of big predators that might be feasting on small walleyes. Large walleyes are also plentiful in Mille Lacs, the result of protecting those fish — generally described as walleyes greater than 20 inches — over many years.
The lake's increasing water clarity is one possible reason Mille Lacs walleyes are struggling, said DNR fisheries researcher Missy Drake.
Water clarity in Mille Lacs can be blamed on a number of factors. Invasive zebra mussels, which according to Drake exploded in growth beginning in 2011, filter and cleanse the water.
"Mille Lacs has seen a dramatic change in water clarity," Drake said. "Optimal water clarity is about 8 feet. The water clarity in Mille Lacs is now about 15 feet. As water clarity increases, walleye survival decreases."
Drake also noted that pike are sight feeders, and water clarity aids them in ambushing prey.
"We need to promote keeping pike," Bruesewitz said. "And we need your help."
Another invasive species, spiny water fleas, first found in Mille Lacs in 2009, could be causing a decrease in zooplankton, which young walleyes feed on.
DNR fisheries managers said tribal netting has not affected Mille Lacs walleyes. But the netting issue dominated a follow-up question-and-answer period.
At times, voices were raised as the issue grew heated.
"We need the DNR to step up for us," said one attendee. "The local economy is really suffering." Cheers followed.
"Federal court says we can't fight tribal netting based on economics, only on conservation," DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said. "Dialog has started between the DNR and the tribe."
Pereira noted the DNR is hiring a panel of national experts to evaluate the lake. The group, Pereira said, is part of five-point action plan that will address, among other issues, northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations, protection of young walleyes, a predator diet study and tourism promotion.
Tom Fiutak of the University of Minnesota facilitated the meeting.