The 2-walleye limit is needed to replenish the premier lake’s fishery.
Perplexed by a complicated and underachieving Lake Mille Lacs fishery, the Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday that anglers can keep only two walleyes from the big lake when the state’s open water fishing season begins May 11.
And Mille Lacs walleyes that end up in a live well or on a stringer must measure between 18 and 20 inches — though one trophy larger than 28 inches can be kept.
The limit is half what it was a year ago, when anglers on Mille Lacs — arguably the state’s premier fishing lake — could keep four walleyes under 17 inches, with one over 28 inches.
“It’s going to hurt business,” said Terry Thurmer of Terry’s Boat Harbor and Marina on Mille Lacs. “Anytime we’ve had a 2-inch shot in the past, business dropped dramatically. People just go elsewhere.”
The cutback is needed, the DNR said, because Mille Lacs walleyes are at a 40-year low.
Reproduction in the lake in recent years has been good, officials said, but too few of the fish are surviving. Consequently, conserving the lake’s large 2008 walleye year-class — now 15 to 17 inches long — is important, because no strong year-classes follow it.
Without the new restrictions, anglers could exceed their “safe harvest quota” of Mille Lacs walleyes, which this year is 178,500 pounds — half the amount in 2012.
A quick rebound of the lake’s walleyes is unlikely, DNR fisheries chief Dirk Peterson said.
“I think we’re looking at least a two- to three-year period” that tighter harvest restrictions will govern the lake, he said.
Mille Lacs walleyes also are netted by eight Minnesota and Wisconsin Chippewa bands whose quota similarly was cut in half this year, to 71,250 pounds.
The bands again will net Mille Lacs during the spring spawn. But they’re being encouraged “to balance [their harvest method]” in an attempt to make their take more “small-fish friendly,” said Charlie Rasmussen of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Chippewa bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
“We’re encouraging tribal harvesters to do more spearing,” Rasmussen said, “to expand the size of the fish that are harvested.”
Among non-band members around the lake, Chippewa nets are widely blamed for the Mille Lacs walleye decline, a position also espoused by a new group called Save Mille Lacs Sportfishing (savemillelacssport fishing.org).
The group issued a statement late Tuesday saying it hoped to take the DNR to court and force an end to Chippewa netting.
But the DNR believes other factors might play roles, including the lake’s larger northern pike and smallmouth bass populations, warming water temperatures brought on by climate change, the relatively recent arrival of invasive species such as zebra mussels, and possibly the agency’s own Mille Lacs-specific harvest regulations.
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