Gov. Mark Dayton can be forgiven if he chooses not to help Mille Lacs area residents and business owners any further during his final 18 months in office.
At his own suggestion, Dayton traveled to Mille Lacs last Saturday to promote the lake’s smallmouth bass fishing, saying he would fish the lake for a few hours to draw attention to its recent designation by Bassmaster magazine as the nation’s best bass fishery.
Dayton believed his visit would be timely, given that walleye fishing is suspended on Mille Lacs until July 28 so sport anglers don’t exceed their 44,800-pound walleye quota before Sept. 5, when walleye fishing on the lake ends until Dec. 1. (As of June 30, the “harvest” of walleyes estimated to have died after being caught was 31,769.)
The anglers’ quota represents 70 percent of a “safe allowable” 64,000-pound Mille Lacs walleye harvest determined jointly by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and biologists represented eight Chippewa bands that co-manage the lake.
So it was last Saturday that when Dayton departed on a launch owned by Fisher’s Resort, his only intent was to highlight an alternative reason for people to come to Mille Lacs and spend money.
Fisher’s was among six Mille Lacs resorts that had volunteered to host the governor. On the boat, in addition to Dayton, were assorted kids, who also would fish, as well as various deck hands, some state employees and a guest invited by the governor, Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
Waiting for Dayton as his launch left shore were protesters in an estimated 30 to 40 boats, including two launches from other resorts. The boats pursued Fisher’s launch onto the lake, and as its captain dropped the boat’s anchor over a rock pile known to hold bass, the protesters circled their boats around Dayton’s launch.
Of the many signs waved by the protesters, most said (or similar), “Gov. Dayton, Stop Mille Lacs Lake politics.”
Had the protesters left it at that and gone on their way, Dayton probably would have met with them after he fished, as he had planned. Instead, following two hours of the protesters’ boats stirring the waters around his launch, cursing at him and others on his boat, and in some cases yelling both racial and sexual comments — all in front of the kids on board — Dayton demurred, saying another time.
The protesters’ big complaint of course concerned walleyes, and the belief by some in the Mille Lacs area that the DNR is misleading Dayton regarding walleye abundance in the lake — that there are many more walleyes in the lake than the woe begotten agency realizes — and if not that, then Dayton and/or the DNR are kowtowing to the Chippewa over walleye numbers and/or harvest methods.
Cited as evidence by the protesters of the healthy Mille Lacs walleye population are the tremendous walleye catch rates recorded by anglers last winter and again this summer. In fact, the catch rates are high: Some launches report hundreds of walleyes being caught in only four hours of fishing.
DNR fisheries managers, meanwhile, have repeatedly told many of the same people who protested last Saturday that Mille Lacs is not the same lake it once was, in part because the lake has become infested by invasive plants and animals, and in part because the lake’s smallmouth bass population has exploded.
The same fisheries managers have also repeatedly told many of the same protesters that angler catch rates are not necessarily indicative of a fish’s population.
“We’ve been trying to get this across to people that good fishing can occur even as a population declines,” said DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira.
Angler catch rates are just one piece of information DNR researchers use to estimate a fish’s population.
Looking ahead, it’s possible that population surveys scheduled for this fall will show an increased walleye population.
Meanwhile, lest the obvious go unsaid, Dayton is by acclamation among state conservation leaders tops among recent Minnesota governors in his promotion of hunting and fishing and the environment in general.
Additionally, to benefit Mille Lacs area residents and businesses specifically, Dayton and the Legislature have invested almost $4 million to develop the area’s economy and promote tourism, including $5,000 in advertising grants that have filtered down to resort owners.
And, of course, it was his idea to come north last Saturday to promote Mille Lacs still further.
Bottom line: The Mille Lacs protesters blew it when some behaved boorishly, casting the entire bunch in their shadow. Apologies are due to Dayton and others on the governor’s launch, especially Joseph, the Vikings player, and the women.