For the second winter season, anglers on Lake Mille Lacs will be restricted to a one-walleye limit as wildlife officials hope to shepherd a recovery of the lake’s walleye population.
The walleye season will open on the lake Dec. 1 with no bait restrictions and a limit of one walleye 20 to 22 inches long or one longer than 28 inches. The winter restrictions follow a summer when the Department of Natural Resources closed the lake to walleye fishing for 35 days and banned the use of live bait during that time. State and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, who jointly manage the fishery, said the restrictions are needed to manage the lake’s historically low walleye numbers.
A winter harvest, even though it’s limited, is good news, according to some resort owners.
“We’ll take it,” said Tim Potoczny, who took over ownership of McQuoid’s Inn in September. “We worried that they might shut it down altogether. One is better than none.”
A harvest “definitely is good for the Mille Lacs community,” where many businesses cater to ice anglers in search of one of the state’s most prized fish, according to Suzy Fisher Anderson at Fisher’s Resort. Although her family’s business isn’t ice fishing, she understands the benefit of a winter harvest for others.
The walleye open-water season on Mille Lacs “went from catch-and-release to being shut down, which is hard to wrap your head around,” Fisher Anderson said. “Catch-and-release is difficult to swallow as it is.”
Allowing anglers to take home a walleye to eat will help buoy spirits and maybe business this winter, resort owners said.
Meanwhile, the size restrictions imposed by the DNR are meant to protect the lake’s walleye spawning population, which are largely made up of walleyes hatched in 2013 and are now nearly mature.
DNR officials said the “conservative regulations” imposed in recent years were meant to sustain the population by protecting the younger spawners-to-be so they could replace the older ones.
“During the past 15 years, our studies show fewer and fewer young walleye surviving to their third year,” said Don Pereira, the DNR’s fisheries section chief. “Young fish not surviving has put Mille Lacs’ walleye population in the unfortunate situation it is now. Whatever is causing that mortality is the root problem.”
It wasn’t until a population survey was completed this fall that DNR officials were able to decide whether to open the lake for a restricted winter harvest. “We know this is important to resorts and businesses because the ice fishing season contributes a lot to the local economy,” Pereira said.
In fact, ice fishing sometimes is a bigger deal on Mille Lacs than open water fishing, said Brad Parsons, the DNR’s central region fisheries manager. “Last year there were 2.2 million hours of winter fishing, compared to 600,000 open-water hours this year. Winter fishing on Mille Lacs is extremely popular, and getting more so.”