Walleye numbers fall to lowest level in 40 years on Mille Lacs

Number are lowest in 40 years, and fish look underfed.


Walleyes caught on Mille Lacs

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Walleye numbers in Lake Mille Lacs -- the state's most popular walleye fishery -- have fallen to their lowest level in 40 years, and officials aren't sure why.

The lake's larger walleyes also are skinny, a sign they are not finding enough food.

"We're concerned,'' said Department of Natural Resources fisheries research manager Don Pereira. Causes could be as varied as the harvest regulations governing sport anglers and Chippewa netters, the explosion of zebra mussels in the lake, improved water clarity or the amount of prey fish such as perch and tullibees.

It's too early to say if the DNR might tighten walleye regulations on the huge lake, Pereira said. Further restrictions could undercut the tourist industry, business owners say. Anglers this summer could keep walleyes less than 17 inches and could keep one fish over 28 inches.

DNR survey nets this fall averaged 4.8 walleyes -- the lowest since 1972 and a continuation of a decline that began in 2009. Last year, 9.7 walleyes per net were recorded.

The disappointing results further complicate the lake's walleye management. DNR officials already were worried about declining numbers of male walleyes, the focus of a meeting next week between DNR and tribal fisheries researchers.

"This raises the urgency'' of those discussions, Pereira said.

The balance between regulations and attracting anglers is fragile, business owners around the lake say.

"If anglers can only keep a couple of fish, they'll go someplace else,'' said Eddy Lyback, who owns Mille Lacs marine and ice fishing businesses.

"This should give the state more leverage to stop the springtime gill netting (by tribes).''

Ironically, said Terry McQuoid of McQuoid's Inn, sport fishing was excellent this summer.

"This was a fantastic year,'' he said. But 70 to 80 percent of the catch was within the protected slot and had to be released, he said.

The hot bite might have been the result of too few forage fish in the lake.

"Fishing success is driven as much or more by forage abundance as abundance of fish themselves,'' Pereira said.

Of factors affecting the Mille Lacs fishery in recent years, the exponential growth of zebra mussels is perhaps least understood and could have affected the net survey's accuracy.

"I think the zebra mussels could play a role in the test net results,'' said former DNR fisheries biologist Dick Sternberg. "But there are so many factors affecting Mille Lacs walleyes now, with slot limits and netting and perch abundance, it's confounding.''

The poor condition of larger walleyes caught in the DNR nets could be tied to a lack of juvenile tullibees, said Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries supervisor.

Walleyes also feed on perch, and their numbers were also down in the survey.

"We had a heck of a tullibee kill this summer,'' Bruesewitz said. The deaths were caused by water temperatures near 80 degrees.

A DNR walleye-tagging study this spring will offer another estimate of the population and will be compared to the gill net survey. But the results will come too late to help set walleye regulations for the 2013 open-water season.

The DNR will take some good news to its meeting this winter with the Mille Lacs Input Group, a consortium of area resort owners, bait shops and other businesses, to discuss their research and regulation options: Electrofishing surveys showed Mille Lacs walleye reproduction this year appeared to be good.

Sport anglers have harvested about 320,000 pounds of Mille Lacs walleyes so far this year. Combined with the 80,000 pounds netted by the Chippewa bands this spring, the harvest remains below the 500,000 pounds the DNR and tribal officials set for 2012.

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed off-reservation hunting and fishing rights held by the eight Chippewa bands and established the "co-management'' of Mille Lacs between the state and the bands.

Failing agreement with the bands over possible management changes, the DNR can act unilaterally, but only under certain conditions, such as conservation of the resource.

dsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-7667 danderson@startribune.com • 612-673-4424


walleyes per DNR survey gill net, down from 9.7 last year.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Pittsburgh - LP: F. Liriano 0 FINAL
Cincinnati - WP: J. Cueto 4
Tampa Bay - LP: J. Odorizzi 0 FINAL
Baltimore - WP: M. Gonzalez 3
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Hammel 0 FINAL
NY Yankees - WP: M. Tanaka 3
St. Louis - LP: J. Kelly 1 FINAL
Milwaukee - WP: W. Peralta 5
NY Mets - WP: D. Gee 5 FINAL
Arizona - LP: B. McCarthy 2
Atlanta - WP: J. Teheran 1 FINAL
Philadelphia - LP: C. Lee 0
Chicago Cubs - LP: T. Wood 0 FINAL
NY Yankees - WP: M. Pineda 2
Cleveland - WP: Z. McAllister 3 FINAL
Detroit - LP: A. Sanchez 2
Washington - WP: D. Storen 6 FINAL
Miami - LP: M. Dunn 3
Seattle - LP: F. Rodney 2 FINAL
Texas - WP: P. Figueroa 3
Boston - WP: C. Capuano 6 FINAL
Chicago WSox - LP: L. Garcia 4
Kansas City - WP: D. Duffy 6 FINAL
Houston - LP: J. Williams 4
Toronto 0 Postponed
Minnesota 0
Oakland - LP: D. Pomeranz 4 FINAL
LA Angels - WP: J. Smith 5
Colorado - LP: J. De La Rosa 2 FINAL
San Diego - WP: A. Cashner 4
Los Angeles - LP: J. Howell 1 FINAL
San Francisco - WP: J. Machi 2
Chicago 86 FINAL
Charlotte 91
Indiana 101 FINAL
Orlando 86
Atlanta 111 FINAL
Milwaukee 103
Dallas 105 FINAL
Memphis 106
Detroit 111 FINAL
Oklahoma City 112
Houston 100 FINAL
New Orleans 105
LA Lakers 113 FINAL
San Antonio 100
Brooklyn 85 FINAL
Cleveland 114
Philadelphia 100 FINAL
Miami 87
Utah 136 FINAL
Minnesota 130
Washington 118 FINAL
Boston 102
Toronto 92 FINAL
New York 95
Golden State 116 FINAL
Denver 112
LA Clippers 104 FINAL
Portland 110
Phoenix 104 FINAL
Sacramento 99
Montreal 5 FINAL(OT)
Tampa Bay 4
Columbus 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 4
Dallas 3 FINAL
Anaheim 4
Philadelphia 1 FINAL
Red Bull New York 2
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question