Department of Natural Resources regional treaty coordinator Tom Jones of Aitkin, Minn., discussed the recent Lake Mille Lacs walleye population assessments his office completed:
Q: Last week your office reported results of the DNR’s Mille Lacs fall fish population assessments and suggested to area business some optimism about the lake and its walleyes is warranted.
A: Yes. We found good numbers of young-of-the-year walleyes. More encouraging was their relatively large size, 6-8 inches. The larger the young fish are, the better their chance for survival.
Q: But survival of Mille Lacs walleye year classes has been a problem in recent years.
A: It has. Last year’s young-of-the-year walleyes, for example, were pretty good. But in our September assessments this year, they didn’t show up in the same numbers. This has been a recurring issue.
Q: Do you know why?
A: One possible reason is predation by other walleyes, as well as northern pike and smallmouth bass. With low tullibee and perch numbers in recent years, that could be the issue, because older walleyes will eat younger ones in the absence of other forage fish. This year, our assessments showed lots of perch and tullibees, so hopefully those numbers will stay strong and that will reduce predation. But that hasn’t been the case recently, as forage hatches have been poor lately. Of course, there are other things going on in the lake with invasive species such as zebra mussels, spiny water fleas and so forth. And we’re not sure what effect they’re having on the forage base or the overall fishery.
Q: When will you know if the 2013 year class of walleyes survives in reasonable numbers?
A: A year from now.
Q: Did your most recent assessments show any changes in the lake’s adult walleyes?
A: No. The abundance of walleyes was about the same this year as last year. Because there haven’t been many juvenile walleyes in the lake in the last three years, the stable population is a good thing.
Q: The lack of males in the lake’s overall walleye population is a problem. But even if this year’s young fish survive in good numbers to 1 year of age, it will be another two or three years before the lake’s walleyes can start to recover, right?
A: That’s right. We need a year class to get through its first year, and beyond. But it won’t be until age 3 or 4 that they can reproduce.
Q: Anglers only kept about 150,000 pounds of walleyes from Mille Lacs since last December, and the Chippewa only took 15,000 pounds — far below the combined quota of 250,000 pounds. Do you envision the harvest slot or limits changing for Mille Lacs walleyes this winter?
A: We need to look further at our assessment data before we make a decision about winter regulations. We’ll make an announcement in early November.