GARRISON, MINN. - Fishing has been so good on Lake Mille Lacs that officials might have to tighten walleye regulations come spring or summer to prevent anglers from exceeding the state's walleye allocation in 2012.
And that prospect, delivered by Department of Natural Resources officials last week to the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group, frustrated local business owners and led them to make an unusual request.
The group directed the DNR to ask the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Ojibwe bands, permission to exceed the state allocation this year.
The Mille Lacs input group, made up mostly of local business owners, noted that angler walleye harvest has been far below state allocations for years. Last year, the state was allocated 397,500 pounds, but anglers harvested just 230,000 pounds.
Allowing anglers to exceed the 2012 allocation of 357,500 pounds by perhaps 30,000 pounds wouldn't hurt the walleye population, they argued. Under the current lake status, the state isn't allowed to exceed the allocation.
The Mille Lacs business owners have worked with the DNR in recent years to maintain consistent walleye regulations. Currently anglers must release walleyes 18 to 28 inches -- a protected slot that has been in effect the past four years. The group fears that tightening the slot -- and reducing the number of fish anglers can keep -- would hurt their businesses.
"Anglers will go somewhere else, to Lake of the Woods or Upper Red Lake,'' if the slot is tightened too much, said Terry McQuoid of McQuoid's Inn.
"This is a small anomaly putting a $60 million fishery at risk,'' said Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson's Portside bait shop.
Said Bill Eno of Twin Pines Resort: "It would be an opportunity for them [bands] to do the right thing.''
DNR officials told the group at a meeting Thursday night at the Hazleton Town Hall that the walleye catch rates this winter have been high and likely will remain high come spring and summer.
While it's difficult to predict how fishing will be the rest of the winter season and next spring, DNR officials said most of their scenarios show that if the 18- to 28-inch protected slot is retained, anglers might exceed the 357,500-pound state allocation this year by perhaps 30,000 pounds.
"The bottom line is we may have to make regulation changes ahead of time, or we could chance it and start out at 18 to 28 inches and see if we have to make a midseason change,'' said Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries supervisor.
Among the scenarios: going to a 17- to 28-inch protected slot; retaining the 18- to 28-inch slot but reducing the bag limit from four to two fish; or going with the 17- to 28-inch slot with a two-fish bag limit.
"I sure don't want a two-fish limit,'' McQuoid said.
It doesn't help that the recommended safe harvest for walleyes has been reduced from 540,000 pounds last year to 500,000 pounds this year, which also dropped the state allocation by 40,000 pounds. The bands' allocation was 142,500 pounds last year and this year.
DNR officials said they will likely decide on the open-water walleye regulations next month.