When Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters Thursday that Lake Mille Lacs will be open for walleye fishing this winter, his announcement caught state conservation officials by surprise.
Speaking after an unrelated event at a St. Paul middle school, Dayton said: "It's crucial that there be a season and it be as generous in terms of limits and opportunities as possible. I will insist there will be one."
Previously, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said it would wait until an annual fall walleye survey was complete on Mille Lacs before determining whether winter walleye fishing could begin Dec. 1, and what restrictions might govern it.
Also, any winter walleye harvest proposals need to be negotiated with eight Chippewa bands before they are implemented by the state, DNR officials have said. Walleye fishing was closed to anglers in August because the state's annual quota had been exceeded.
Agreements between the Chippewa bands and the DNR call for certain harvest restrictions based on the survey and harvest data. Given that the Mille Lacs walleye population is at or near an all-time low, whether a winter walleye season will occur for sport anglers would seem uncertain.
"I really don't know how the governor's statement affects our proposed plan," said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief.
It's possible, given the results of the fall gill-net survey, that a limited season would be allowed in which anglers could keep fish, or a catch-and-release-only walleye season could be implemented.
"We're going to try to analyze the survey results faster than normal," said Brad Parsons, DNR central region fisheries manager, so that winter fishing regulations can be announced well before Dec. 1.
According to the Associated Press, Dayton said he informed DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr of his position during a private meeting Wednesday. Internal e-mails obtained by the AP through the state's public records laws show the department felt immense pressure from the central Minnesota lake community to preserve ice fishing.
An internal planning document from mid-August cited by the AP says the DNR plans to "aggressively pursue" ice fishing options by coordinating with local American Indian tribes to outline the best options for ice fishing on Mille Lacs.
"I think there is going to be growing pressure to begin to outline what an ice fishing season might look like on Mille Lacs," Landwehr wrote in an Aug. 7 e-mail to staff, the AP reported.
Linda Eno, who owns Twin Pines in Garrison, Minn., with her husband, Bill, told the Star Tribune in August as walleye fishing was shut down that January is the biggest month for her business. "If they don't open it [to winter walleye fishing], I'll have to get another job," she said.
Parsons said that though the winter season is only three months long, historically there's more fishing pressure than during the open-water season. The long-term average is 1.7 million hours of fishing pressure in winter, compared to 1.4 million hours in the summer, he said.
But the walleye harvest catch "rates are 10 times higher in open water than winter," said Parsons.
Normally, the winter season would have the same walleye regulations as when the open-water season started last May. "But this isn't a normal situation," said Parsons.
When the season started, there was a one-walleye limit, and only those 19 to 21 inches could be kept, except one 28 inches or longer. Night walleye fishing also was closed for the season. Officials tightened the regulations so the harvest wouldn't exceed the 28,600 pounds allocated to state anglers under the Treaty of 1837 with the eight Chippewa bands.
But that quota was exceeded in July, and the DNR closed the lake to walleye fishing Aug. 3.