Something’s missing this season on Lake Mille Lacs, one of the state’s most popular fishing destinations.
Fishing pressure in June — as measured in the number of hours anglers fished — was the lowest on record, according to Department of Natural Resources creel surveys of anglers. Surveyors tallied about 165,000 hours of fishing last month, nearly half as much as last June.
Not surprisingly, June’s walleye harvest was a record low, too.
Eric Jensen, DNR large lake specialist for Mille Lacs, said he believes a slow bite caused by a plethora of small perch for walleyes to munch is the main reason for the absence of anglers.
“There’s an abundance of natural bait out there, and then it’s oftentimes hard to get fish to bite on something on a hook,’’ he said. “With social media, it doesn’t take long for the word to get out about a hot bite or a slow bite.’’
The Mille Lacs walleye regulations are the same as last year — anglers can keep two walleyes between 18 and 20 inches, with one longer than 28 inches, with a two-fish bag limit. But new this year is a ban on night fishing.
Kathy Lundeen, who, with her husband Bill, owns Lundeen’s Tackle Castle near Onamia, has seen the effects of the reduced fishing pressure.
“There just aren’t the fishermen here,’’ she said. “It’s not just the [slow] bite. I think people don’t want the controversy. They have heard there’s a night ban, the fishing is a little tougher, so they’re not going to come. But the fish are out there.’’
This despite the presence of big walleyes in the lake, as well as numerous smallmouth bass and northerns. Anglers caught and released 112,000 pounds of walleyes in May and June.
And more anglers appear to be showing up to fish for smallies.
“I would say we’re seeing more bass anglers,’’ Lundeen said.
They released 134,000 pounds of smallmouth bass and kept only 5,000 pounds since the fishing opener.
The DNR boosted bag limits for bass to six and extended the season, and increased the northern bag limit to 10 fish, with one longer than 30 inches.
But can bass anglers replace the missing walleye anglers — long the bread-and-butter for Mille Lacs businesses?
“It’s the million-dollar question,’’ Lundeen said.
Meanwhile, with the record-low fishing pressure, the walleye harvest, too, has been tiny, with only 10,000 pounds of walleyes killed so far this year. The state’s allocation is 42,900 pounds.
The fear going into the season was that the DNR might have to impose catch-and-release-only fishing if it appeared anglers would exceed the walleye quota.