For the second year in a row on Mille Lacs, a winter of hot walleye fishing will do nothing to liberalize the walleye bag limit for summer, meaning 2017 will be another year of catch and release when angling for the state fish.
“It’s a disappointment,” said Terry McQuoid, a lifelong resident of the area and owner of McQuoid’s Inn, a lakeside fishing resort in Isle. “I can’t remember in 44 years where we caught as many as we did this winter and yet they say the lake is in dire needs.”
There’s just no justification for keeping the restriction, he said.
The Department of Natural Resorces (DNR) has yet to publish regulations for the coming open-water season on the iconic central Minnesota lake. But the DNR’s Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee was told last week to expect a second consecutive catch-and-release season.
“We expect a fishing experience very similar to last year,” Brad Parsons, DNR central region fisheries manager, said Monday.
Parsons said the official rules for 2017 will be announced after terms are negotiated and finalized between the DNR and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). The two agencies co-manage the fishery under a 1997 federal court order.
Last year, the relationship was fractured when Gov. Mark Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr chose to allow state-licensed anglers to far exceed the state’s allocation under the annual pact. The decision prompted a threat of litigation from eight Chippewa bands in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but no lawsuit was filed. In addition, the director of government relations for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Jamie Edwards, resigned from his position as the only tribal representative on the Fisheries Advisory Committee. Among other things, Edwards cited interference by the citizens’ committee in walleye management agreements. Landwehr has not filled Edwards’ vacated committee seat.
Asked if hard feelings from last year were affecting walleye co-management, Parsons said, “There’s definitely some issues there.” But he said the technical committees for the DNR and GLIFWC continue to work well together.
Their analysis of how many walleyes can safely be harvested is based in part by fall test netting. McQuoid said last year’s fish numbers in the netting survey were low and that he’s not alone in distrusting the official assessments.
McQuoid said a lot of anglers who rented fish houses this winter were catching 20 to 40 walleyes in a weekend. The fish “were not skinny by any means,” and they came in all sizes.
Parsons acknowledged that the winter season on Mille Lacs, which is now coming to a close, was “quite good.” He also predicted that the lake’s walleyes will be snapping again come spring and summer.
Last year, state anglers exceeded the 2016 safe-harvest allotment of 28,600 pounds of walleyes in August. But instead of closing the lake to walleye fishing like it did in 2015, the DNR kept the catch-and-release season open until Sept. 6. In the end, the state removed 67 percent more walleyes from the lake than allowed. The kill numbers were calculated by estimating the mortality of fish returned to the lake after being caught.
That so-called hooking mortality formula could change based on improved data, Parsons said. But the computer model is still heavily keyed to temperature. Hot spells can increase the rate dramatically.
The DNR’s scientific opinion is that walleyes have been declining in Mille Lacs for more than 12 years. The slide is not related to fishing or harvesting by anyone, the agency has said. Rather, the lake’s biology has changed as zebra mussels and spiny water fleas have removed nutrients and disrupted the food chain. The lake is so out of balance that larger walleyes have been eating their young.
Paul Venturelli, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, was on a blue-ribbon panel of experts that synthesized research findings for Mille Lacs in 2014.
“Our conclusions weren’t too different from what the DNR found,” Venturelli said Monday.
He said more study could possibly prove that the lake can support a heavier walleye harvest, but he sides with the DNR on being cautious. Like Edwards, Venturelli resigned from the fisheries advisory committee last year. Fellow committee members weren’t accepting the science, he said then.
“It breaks my heart to see what has happened to this fishery,” Venturelli said. “But a catch-and-release season is probably our safest bet at this point until we can figure out what’s going on.”