More walleyes are swimming this year in Mille Lacs than a year ago, but anglers still won’t be able to keep even one of the tasty fish during the coming season.

The announcement Monday by the Department of Natural Resources that catch-and-release walleye angling will rule on Mille Lacs for the third straight summer disappointed local business owners — despite upbeat DNR projections the big lake won’t be subject to midseason fishing closures.

“We’re no longer in any type of crisis up here, so we should be able to start harvesting fish,’’ said Kevin McQuoid, owner of Mac’s Twin Bay Resort on Mille Lacs. “It’s definitely tough for this area.’’

McQuoid said patience is wearing thin. Some loyalists are pulling away from what historically has been the state’s premier walleye lake — even those who once acknowledged that Mille Lacs’ walleye population needed rebuilding, he said.

Steve Johnson, the owner of a Mille Lacs bait shop and convenience store, took to Twitter with a complaint that the DNR didn’t involve the local community in its latest decision. Johnson sits on the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, a group of local stakeholders appointed by the DNR.

“None of us are happy about this, but it is the card we’ve been dealt with at this time,’’ Johnson said. “Looking forward to a new governor’s election.’’

As of Monday, DNR was still in disagreement with tribal fisheries managers on where to set this year’s co-managed, safe-harvest level for walleyes. But even if the bands were to fully embrace the state’s more liberal assessment, there’d be no keepers this summer and fall for state-licensed anglers.

“Even with our own numbers you couldn’t catch and keep,’’ DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira said.

Pereira and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr stressed that walleye numbers have improved enough to possibly avoid a fishing closure this year. Temporary closures started in August 2015 and continued during the catch-and-release seasons of 2016 and 2017.
“We want to see as much walleye fishing on Mille Lacs as possible this year,’’ Landwehr said. “Anglers have had a very good winter walleye season on the lake and we will be able to continue that trend into the open-water season with no midseason closure planned.’’

By all accounts, Mille Lacs is blessed with an exceptional class of young walleyes born in 2013. The super group far outnumbers any other age class of walleyes in the lake and is now old enough to reproduce.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that baby walleyes are still struggling to survive in Mille Lacs for reasons not totally understood. A two-decade decline in the lake’s walleye population has coincided with the introduction of zebra mussels, the addition of two other aquatic invasive species, increased water clarity and a changing plankton community that may have altered the lake’s food web.

Pereira said DNR analyses as well as an external review indicate the lake this year can support a larger safe harvest level of walleyes than it did in 2017. Then, the shared quota was 64,000 pounds, with 44,800 allocated to state anglers and 19,200 for tribal fishing.

In the past two years, the shared quota has been so low that catch and release was a necessity. That’s because a certain number of walleyes die when they are hooked and returned to the water. Those so-called “hooking mortality’’ calculations vary depending on water temperature and other factors. The estimated number of fish that die counts against the state’s harvest allocation.

Pereira didn’t disclose the state’s calculation for what it considers to be a safe harvest level for 2018. Nor would he say how far apart the two sides remain in reaching agreement. Under dispute resolution rules, the case would go to mediation if a stalemate is reached. If either side disagreed with the mediator, the case could go to court.

But Charlie Rasmussen, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the safe harvest number is “going to be resolved’’ and is expected to be higher than it was in 2017. The group represents eight Minnesota and Wisconsin Chippewa bands that have hunting and fishing rights in east-central Minnesota, including Mille Lacs.

“The bands are working with their colleagues at the DNR,’’ Rasmussen said. “It’s been a number of years now when the bands and the state have shared the sacrifice’’ of reduced walleye allocations from Mille Lacs.

Pereira said the state’s projected safe harvest level for 2018 is large enough to absorb some of the overruns recorded by state-licensed anglers in 2016 and 2017 when they exceeded their quota. But it’s not large enough to lift a ban on night fishing for walleyes. The 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. night closure on Mille Lacs starts Monday, May 14.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213

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