Department of Natural Resources officials are talking internally about unrest in the Mille Lacs community over a first-ever regulation that would ban the use of live bait this year for walleye fishing on the big lake.
Two members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee told the Star Tribune on Friday that they and other members of the committee have talked to Gov. Mark Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr about dropping the live bait ban. Most people accept this year's catch-and-release mandate for Mille Lacs walleyes, they said, but the added restriction against live bait would keep too many families from visiting the lake.
"Very few people support it,'' said Steve Johnson, an advisory committee member and owner of Johnson's Portside Bait & Liquor store in Isle.
DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said the agency hasn't changed its position but may soon discuss the live bait restriction with the advisory committee. The 17-member group, appointed by Landwehr last fall, includes local business owners, professional anglers and local government officials.
Brad Parsons, the DNR's central region fisheries manager, said the pushback on the live bait ban has prompted discussions inside the DNR, but no changes. The new regulations were established just two weeks ago to address a multifaceted problem with the survival rates of young walleye. The walleye season opens statewide May 14.
"In no way can I say whether it will be changed,'' Parsons said. "We are going to talk more about it.''
Dropping the artificial bait mandate would significantly raise the risk of an early shutdown of walleye fishing on Mille Lacs this year, something the local business community is set against. But Johnson said the negatives of the no-live-bait rule outweigh the chance of a potentially earlier closure of fishing.
Even if the artificial-only rule were to stick, there's no guarantee the lake wouldn't be shut down in midseason, he said.
The first midseason shutdown of walleye fishing on Mille Lacs came last year when the DNR announced that the state had overstepped its walleye harvest quota of 28,600 pounds. The allocation was established under a joint fisheries management structure with Chippewa bands, and this year's quotas are the same as in 2015. They are meant to protect walleyes needed for regenerating the lake.
Even though state anglers won't be able to keep walleyes they catch on Mille Lacs this year, fish deaths resulting from hooking will count against the allocation. The DNR has said exclusive use of artificial bait will slow hooking mortality by 55 percent.
"Keep in mind the goal is to keep the lake open,'' Niskanen said.
Dean Hanson, co-chair of the advisory committee and owner of Agate Bay Resort, said a number of his customers have canceled their reservations, citing the live bait ban.
"There's a large group of people who find it unacceptable,'' Hanson said.
The objectors include families accustomed to having their children bobber-fish for walleyes using worms or minnows. Many of those customers aren't interested in transitioning to artificial bait, Johnson said.
Some panfish anglers, too, won't visit Mille Lacs this season if they can't use live bait. The regulation states that Mille Lacs anglers may not possess any bait that is live, dead, frozen or processed. Anglers targeting northern pike and muskies may possess and use sucker minnows longer than 8 inches.
Johnson said the new regulation, if left in place, would wipe out $2 million a year in local sales of live bait and related fishing tackle.
Johnson and Hanson said they aired their complaints in a recent conference call with Dayton and Landwehr. Joining them on the call were other members of the advisory committee, but Johnson stressed that the committee has not taken an official stance.
Niskanen said the governor's "key interest'' is maintaining open communications with the community and keeping the area's economy viable and vibrant.
Pro angler Tom Neustrom, another member of the Mille Lacs advisory committee, said part of the unrest stems from surprise. While the DNR had discussed the hooking mortality benefits of using artificial bait, it did not discuss the possibility of a catch-and-release season coupled with only artificial bait, Neustrom said.
"I think we have to take a look at this,'' he said.