GARRISON, MINN. – Some of the most restrictive fishing regulations Lake Mille Lacs anglers have seen are likely to be imposed this summer on the state’s most popular walleye lake to reduce the harvest.
Anglers could start the season with a 2-inch harvest slot and a two-fish bag limit, which might be increased later in the summer.
Local business owners said those tight restrictions were better than alternatives presented by Department of Natural Resources officials at a Wednesday night meeting near the lake.
Those alternatives included a possible ban on night fishing and restrictions on the use of live bait and certain hooks and jigs. DNR officials discussed the options with 60 residents, including two dozen members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group, a consortium of area resort owners, bait shops and other businesses.
Members strongly opposed a night fishing ban. “That’s probably 75 percent of our customers,” said Bill Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort.
And they said an 18- to 20-inch harvest slot, meaning only walleyes in that size could be kept, with a two-fish bag limit to start the season was least objectionable of 33 alternatives the DNR offered.
Still, some said they feared businesses could be hurt by the restrictive regulations.
“We’ve already lost resorts,” said Tim Chapman of Chapman’s Mille Lacs Resort. “It will be tough.”
There was good news: The DNR is proposing to relax rules for smallmouth bass and northerns to perhaps reduce predation of smaller walleyes while also providing anglers with fish for the fry pan.
The DNR, local businesses and anglers find themselves with few options because they must reduce the walleye harvest. Concerned over the lake’s declining walleye population — the lowest in 40 years — state officials earlier this winter slashed the lake’s 2013 “safe” walleye harvest by sports anglers in half to 178,750 pounds. The quota for the eight Chippewa bands also was halved, to 71,250 pounds. That 250,000 pounds is the lowest safe harvest quota since the state and Chippewa bands established them in 1997.
A 2-inch harvest slot — possibly 18 to 20 inches — is likely to be the foundation of the new regulations. Anglers could only keep walleyes within that slot.
But DNR biologists estimate that tight harvest slot still would result in a walleye harvest, including hooking mortality, of around 200,000 pounds — well over the state’s allotment. (Hooking mortality is an estimate of the number of fish that die after being deep-hooked and released.)
“So we would need to add some other things to get us below our allocation to avoid a midseason regulation change,” said Tom Jones, DNR large-lake specialist.
If it looks like walleye harvest could exceed the state’s allotment, the DNR might have to reduce the bag limit to zero, meaning catch-and-release-only walleye fishing. He offered some ideas, including a ban on night fishing, an especially popular and lucrative activity for commercial boat launches.
In recent years, a month-long night ban began at 10 p.m. after the fishing opener. If a season-long night ban is imposed, it could begin at 8:30 p.m., Jones said.
Other possible options: Restrictions on the use of live bait, possibly during June and July, when hooking mortality is highest. Another option: requiring the use of circle hooks, and banning regular hooks or jigs, which could reduce mortality.
Members of the input group rejected those options.
Currently, four walleyes under 17 inches are allowed, with one fish over 28 inches.
Officials don’t know how the proposed tighter regulations would affect fishing pressure, which would impact harvest and hooking mortality. But reducing hooking mortality is key; officials estimated that 136,000 pounds of the 310,000 pounds of walleyes harvested last year by sport anglers were fish lost to hooking mortality.
The question for local businesses and the DNR is whether anglers will come to the 200-square mile lake primarily to catch and release walleyes. Many think they will, because they have been in recent years when keeping a fish outside the protected slot has been difficult.
“No one likes where we are at,” said Dean Hanson, owner of Agate Bay Resort. But “Mille Lacs has a lot more to offer than just harvesting walleyes. We can focus more on smallmouth bass and northerns. We’ll survive.”
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr ultimately will have to decide which regulations to impose.