Illegal fishing on Mille Lacs has been rampant this winter, based on enforcement actions by the Department of Natural Resources.
Overfishing also was detected in angler surveys conducted in late December and throughout January by DNR fisheries officials. The abuse will count against the state’s 2019 allocation of walleye poundage — an allocation that may not allow for a limited take of walleyes when the open-water season starts on May 11.
Lt. Bob Gorecki of the DNR said the violation rate by ice anglers is the highest he’s seen in five years of enforcement supervision on the lake. Officers also saw a lot of drug use over four weekends of “saturation’’ enforcement conducted by five to seven conservation officers at a time, he said.
The busts happened during a crush of fishing pressure.
“This is by far the busiest I’ve seen it,’’ Gorecki said.
The special enforcement this winter resulted in 146 citations and 213 warnings, the DNR said. Twenty percent of the writeups dealt with keeping fish illegally. This winter’s bag limit on Mille Lacs is one walleye within a slot of 21 to 23 inches.
“The violation rates we were seeing were particularly high,’’ Gorecki said.
About 40 percent of the violations were for having too many fishing lines, unattended lines or no license. Another 30 percent were for drugs or litter.
The special enforcement was triggered by complaints from the public, some based on social media postings by anglers showing off their catch, Gorecki said.
“This year complaints from the public have probably quadrupled,’’ he said.
Early ice on Mille Lacs allowed for a “phenomenal’’ early winter catch rate of .2 walleyes per hour, said Tom Heinrich, DNR fisheries supervisor for the lake. The catch rate has declined, Heinrich said, but the good fishing reportedly drew crowds of up to 7,000 anglers per weekend day.
Through the end of January, Mille Lacs anglers harvested an estimated 10,000 pounds of walleyes, compared to 6,000 pounds all last winter, Heinrich said.
He said the DNR’s face-to-face angler surveys this season detected rates of illegal fishing on par with what was reported by the enforcement division. “We’re capturing the true harvest out there,’’ Heinrich said.
The calculations count against the state’s allocation under the co-management system between Minnesota and eight Chippewa bands who share the resource. Scientific evidence of walleye scarcity has greatly restricted the “safe harvest” allocation in recent years.
Gorecki said enforcement checks found numerous instances of walleyes kept despite being an inch or more out of the slot limit. No fishing equipment was confiscated, but officers did confiscate needles, pipes and other paraphernalia related to marijuana, meth, hash and other drugs.
“Quite a bit of drug violations,’’ Gorecki said.
In one case, an angler hid illegal walleyes under his fish house. He was friendly to officers until they found his stash.
“The guy just said he wanted to keep fish,’’ Gorecki said. “He made some disparaging remarks about the Mille Lacs situation and the Native American component.
“We get quite a bit of that out there,’’ the lieutenant said.