Leech Lake's walleye population is now so high that state resource managers likely will relax fishing regulations next year, making it easier for anglers to keep more fish.

Officials want anglers to take more walleyes from the 175-square-mile lake. Spurred by the current 18- to 26-inch protected slot, the lake's walleye biomass is at a near-record high — and is having negative impacts on the fishery.

"Currently we're seeing thinner walleyes," said Matt Ward, Department of Natural Resources large lake specialist. "Walleye condition has declined over the past four or five years."

The number of spawner walleyes also is at a 26-year high. All of those fish are having an impact.

"We have seen a decline in yellow perch for five consecutive years," Ward said, noting cormorants — whose population on the lake has been reduced in recent years by conservation officials because of concerns the birds were overfeeding on fish — are not driving that trend. "It's a strange thing to say, but we have too many walleyes and too much walleye biomass in the lake."

So the agency likely will propose relaxing the protected slot to 20 to 26 inches. It is taking public comment.

One of the reasons for the high walleye population is anglers haven't returned in the numbers that existed before the walleye population dwindled in the early 2000s.

"We picked a slot limit anticipating harvest and angling pressure that we had seen in the early 2000s and 1990s would continue," Ward said. "We haven't seen that; we haven't seen the anglers return."

Larry Anderson, a longtime guide who lives on the lake and is a member of the advisory committee, said the slot relaxation would be an improvement, but he and others are hoping the agency could simply allow one walleye over 20 inches — the statewide regulation.

"It makes more sense," he said. "There's a lot of confusion, I think, whether here or at Rainy Lake or Winnie, over the protected slots."

Fishing on Leech was great in June and July, he said, but many of the walleyes were in that protected slot and had to be released. Fishing pressure won't increase until anglers can routinely keep some fish to eat, he said.

The DNR is holding a local public open house meeting from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 in Walker, and Sept. 25 at DNR headquarters in St. Paul. Comments also can be submitted until Oct. 18 by e-mail to doug.w.schultz@state.mn.us, or by telephone at (218) 547-1683.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com