There was anger, sadness and a bit of resignation Sunday when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced it was shutting down walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs midseason for the first time in history.
The cutoff, aimed at protecting a record low walleye population, was 10 p.m. Monday.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr called it “a dark day for anglers in Minnesota.”
The brunt of anger from Mille Lacs resort owners was directed at Gov. Mark Dayton, state conservation officials and the eight Chippewa bands that have treaty rights dating back to 1837 to share fishing on the lake.
“I feel like nobody listened,” said Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort in Garrison. “I was sitting with some customers when I got the text … they are sick about it, sick. Everybody is disgusted, saddened and sickened.
“I’ve already had cancellations, multiple cancellations. I’m hoping that people already booked will be OK with fishing bass and perch.”
“We all understand the gravity of this situation,” Landwehr said. “It’s traumatic for anglers and for those who rely on fishing.”
John Odle, owner of Rocky Reef Resort in Onamia, said, “The commissioner needs to resign or quit or be fired … They need to go. The whole system has to be redone.”
Just three years ago, the quota for walleye on Mille Lacs was a half-million pounds. This year, it was 40,000 pounds. About two-thirds of that quota — or 28,600 pounds — was for sport fishermen; one-third was for the tribes. Anglers this year have been limited to one walleye per person.
On Sunday, Landwehr and fisheries section chief Don Pereira said the sport fishermen’s allotment already has been exceeded by at least 2,000 pounds. Not included is 750 pounds of walleye that succumbed after a recent catch-and-release tournament and an unknown number that will die as hooking and releasing continues through Dec. 1.
Landwehr and Pereira repeatedly stressed Sunday that the smallmouth bass, northern pike and muskie fishing on the lake remains “outstanding.”
That failed to satisfy Greg Fisher, who owns Fisher’s Resort.
“It’s a walleye lake — that’s the thing,” he said. “People just don’t want to switch. If we can get people to switch to bass or northern, that will be good, but I don’t know if they will.”
Dayton was in Isle for a town-hall meeting Friday, where he reiterated his plan for short-term financial help for area businesses hurt by the walleye season shutdown and a special legislative session if needed. He said big leadership changes are coming for the Aitkin office of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and he announced that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe would forgo its walleye harvest next year.
Landwehr and Pereira said Sunday that the DNR plans to put a research and stocking station on the shores of the lake in the future, while adding research and management muscle — such as a full-time biologist — right away.
The biggest problem appears to be that something seems to be killing the young fish, officials said. Predation by larger fish, including walleyes, too-high water temperatures, zebra mussels, spiny water fleas and invasive plant species all were mentioned as possible contributors. “They’re not out of the woods until they’re 2½-year-old fish,” Pereira said.
Since the DNR began doing assessments in 1983, he’s “never seen walleyes this low,” Pereira said.
Fishing by the bands is still a little under their quota, but their take of walleye is not the problem, Landwehr said. The Mille Lacs Band’s decision was “a good-faith effort,” he said, but is “not going to make a significant difference in the harvest or significant recovery of the lake.”
As for short-term help for the businesses that rely on the lake to earn a living, Landwehr said Explore Minnesota, the Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Department of Revenue all are involved. Explore Minnesota already plans to spend $30,000 to tout the beautiful beaches and countryside and great fishing (besides walleye) in the area.
Other help could include short-term loans or property-tax abatements, DNR officials said.
The DNR is not keen on stocking the lake for walleye, but isn’t opposed to it, either, if the spawning population falls below a threshold.
“Our messaging has been pretty clear,” Pereira said. “Walleyes are doing just fine producing new fish. If we can’t stem this declining trend in spawners, we’ll have to come in … and take eggs from Mille Lacs and collect those and put them back. It’s what we had to do in Red Lake in ’99 to bring those fish back.”
It’s too soon to say what the outlook for 2016 is, Landwehr and Pereira said. The DNR will assess walleye numbers in August and September.
If the numbers aren’t sufficient, 2016 could be a catch-and-release year, and the Chippewa bands then would do only ceremonial fishing, the officials said.
Pereira said that, in the past, they have seen elevated mortality levels on Lake Kabetogama and in the western basin of Lake Vermilion, but those situations never reached the dire state of Mille Lacs.
Staff writers Dennis Anderson and Karen Zamora contributed to this report.