For the first time ever on Mille Lacs, only artificial bait will be allowed this summer for walleye fishing when the season opens on May 14. What's more, all walleyes must be released beginning with the season's first day.
The DNR made the dramatic announcements Monday morning in a media conference call.
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said that the chance of closing MIlle Lacs to walleye fishing is greater this year than it was last summer, when walleye fishing on Mille Lacs was abruptly ended in early August after the season's harvest quota was met.
“Even with our catch-and-release approach, the risk (of closing the season early) remains considerable,” Pereira said.
“A catch-and-release walleye season allows us to protect future spawners yet acknowledges the desire that fishing remain open,” added Pereira. “Not allowing harvest is a difficult decision but it provides our best option.”
From May 14 to Thursday, Dec. 1, anglers targeting walleye must use artificial bait and immediately release all walleye caught. Meanwhile, anglers targeting northern pike and muskies may possess and use sucker minnows longer than 8 inches. But all other anglers must not possess any other bait that is live, dead, frozen or processed.
One exception to the no-live-bait rule: Launch operators that participate in a DNR study can use live bait provided they agree to participate in efforts to collect data from fishing trips, launch customers and cooperate with the hooking mortality study. Their permits will be suspended if walleye fishing on Mille Lacs has to be closed.
“Anglers fish close together on launches, making it extremely difficult to safely cast artificial lures rather than dropping baited lines into the water,” Pereira said. “Since the DNR needs more data to refine its hooking mortality standards, asking launches to provide this data will allow a traditional, popular and enjoyable method of fishing on Mille Lacs to continue.”
Other changed regulations for the 2016 season on Mille Lacs announced by the DNR Monday morning:
Walleye: Night closure beginning Monday, May 16, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and continuing through Dec. 1. Muskellunge anglers may fish at night but all baits, live or artificial, in possession must be at least 8 inches long.
Northern pike: Five fish with only one longer than 40 inches. All northern 30-40 inches long must be immediately released.
Bass: Four fish with only one longer than 21 inches. All fish 17-21 inches long must be immediately released.
“These new regulations reflect the DNR’s commitment to continue providing world-class fishing at one of Minnesota’s premier vacation destinations,” Pereira said.
Last year on Mille Lacs, walleye anglers could use live bait and keep one walleye 19-21 inches long or longer than 28 inches. Walleye fishing closed in August when fishing pressure, the number of fish caught and temperatures combined to push the state over its 28,600 pound walleye limit. Fishing re-opened on Dec. 1, 2015, with a walleye limit of one 18-20 inches or one longer than 28 inches.
This year’s safe walleye harvest level established by the DNR and Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission remains at 40,000 pounds, with 28,600 allocated to state anglers and 11,400 to tribal anglers. Allowing fishing beyond those limits puts the walleye population at risk and a federal court decision requires that walleye fishing be suspended.
Concern stems from the additional pressure that hooking mortality – an estimate of the number of fish that die after being caught and returned to the water – has on walleye harvest. Hooking mortality rates also increase as water temperatures warm. Both factors are at play in Mille Lacs this year.
The DNR expects more small- and intermediate-sized fish to be caught, including fish hatched in 2013 that biologists are counting on to rebuild Mille Lacs’ walleye population. These immature fish, which are approaching a more catchable but comparatively small size of 14 inches and longer, need to be protected so they can spawn. Ice is opening on lakes earlier this year, increasing the likelihood that water temperatures will warm faster and sooner.
“A low level of allowed harvest doesn't’t necessarily mean slow walleye fishing,” Pereira said. “As we saw last year, factors can combine to alter estimates and require adjustments. We believe that allowing no walleye harvest through catch-and-release is a reasonable yet cautious response based on in-depth analysis and citizen input from the Mille Lacs advisory committee.”
As part of a more comprehensive study to better understand and estimate hooking mortality, the DNR will collect a variety of fishing information on Mille Lacs this summer. Temperature sensors will be placed in different parts of the lake at different depths to more accurately record temperatures where walleye congregate. Information on fishing methods and catches will be collected, too. Part of the information collection aspect of the research program will allow Mille Lacs’ fishing launches to be exempt from the live bait restriction.
Bass regulations compromise
Anglers can keep four bass in any combination of largemouth and smallmouth, down from last year’s limit of six fish. The new regulations add a requirement that all fish 17-21 inches be immediately released, and the length restriction for the largest fish an angler may keep increased from 18 to 21 inches.
The early harvest offered on Mille Lacs also was eliminated, requiring that – like the rest of the state – all bass caught during the first two weeks of the season be immediately released.
Mille Lacs’ exemption to the statewide fall closure of the smallmouth bass season remains, meaning that anglers may keep smallmouth bass they catch on Mille Lacs through Feb. 28, 2017.
DNR changed the regulation to balance bass angling groups’ call for stricter regulations to protect Mille Lacs Lake’s world-class smallmouth fishery with the desire and need to provide anglers opportunities to harvest fish.
“Bass regulations are a compromise,” Pereira said. “Last year’s regulations were biologically sound but it was important that DNR also factor in the emerging social aspects in this year’s regulations.”
The ability to exempt large bass tournaments from the size regulation and bag limits remains.
Northern pike regulations change
Mille Lacs anglers can keep five northern pike, only one of which can be longer than 40 inches. All fish 30-40 inches must be immediately released.
The five-fish limit was initially enacted last December. The protected slot limit replaces the provision that allowed anglers to keep only one fish longer than 30 inches.
The earn-a-trophy provision that required anglers to harvest two smaller pike before one larger one was eliminated for the 2016 open water season.
More information about Mille Lacs is available on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/millelacslake.