MILLE LACS – It still takes getting used to, the lack of boats on this big lake. Years ago on a late June evening, you could put in near Garrison or Isle or Wealthwood or Malmo, and watercraft on the lake bobbed like corks as far as the eye could see. Not so any more: The other evening when Robbie Robinson, Mike Giefer and I motored out of the harbor at Fisher's Resort, we saw nary another boat between us and the horizon.

Our intent was to catch walleyes. Fishing on Mille Lacs has been good this summer since the May 12 opener, though not as crazy-good as it was last year at this time.

As evidence, consider that the record for walleyes caught in 2017 from a Fisher's launch — or large charter boat capable of handling as many as 20 anglers — was 170 during a four-hour evening cruise.

"The same bunch was up a week or so ago, and this time they caught 130," Robinson said.

Robinson, who spent the bulk of his work life as a flight paramedic in Duluth, his hometown, fished whenever he could as a kid. Now, he says, he's living his dream, fishing nearly every day as captain of Fisher's Resort's 30-foot Sport Craft or 55-foot launch.

So much does Robinson enjoy fishing that on this evening, he's off duty and he's still willing to swing a leech overboard for a few hours, hoping to fool a walleye or two. Also along is Giefer of Woodbury, a pal of Robinson's who keeps a vacation home at Fisher's and, like Robinson, indulges his fishing habit whenever possible.

"I was nuts about fishing when I was a kid and I still am," Giefer, 57, said, adding that unlike most anglers he wasn't drawn to Mille Lacs by its walleyes but by the lake's smallmouth bass and muskies.

A few miles from shore, Robinson cut the boat's engine, casting us adrift. As quickly, he, Giefer and I baited sliding-sinker rigs with leeches and airmailed them overboard. The lake's annual mayfly hatch was just beginning, and clouds of the emerging bugs were visible on the boat's depth finder.

"The mayflies will slow fishing on the lake for a little while," Robinson said.

Though Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries managers believe the Mille Lacs walleye population generally is unchanged from a year ago, the lake's walleye "bite" has cooled somewhat from 2017.

The dominant Mille Lacs walleye year class remains the one hatched in 2013, and these fish, which are plentiful, range in length this year from about 15 to 19 inches, with 16- and 17-inch specimens being the norm.

An increased population of Mille Lacs yellow perch, a prime walleye forage fish, likely is responsible for the lake's slower action this summer, officials say.

As of June 15, anglers had caught an estimated 11,132 pounds of walleyes, according to the DNR, during a period that began Dec. 1. "That's about half of what it was for the same period a year ago," said DNR central region fisheries manager Brad Parsons, adding that Mille Lacs angling pressure is up slightly from 2017 (Parsons last week was named DNR fisheries chief, beginning later this month.)

Again this summer, anglers aren't allowed to keep walleyes from Mille Lacs. But they're operating under a 76,450-pound walleye "harvest" quota nonetheless. The quota is determined by estimating the number of walleyes that die after being caught and released.

The DNR has predicted the quota won't be met this summer, and that Mille Lacs walleye fishing won't be shut down before Labor Day like it was last summer — a hiatus that hurt area businesses.

Meanwhile, DNR Mille Lacs treaty coordinator Tom Jones said the eight Chippewa bands that co-manage the lake's fisheries have essentially concluded their walleye harvest for the year.

By net and spear, the bands have taken 13,186 walleyes from Mille Lacs weighing 24,536 pounds, well short of their self-imposed quota of 47,200 pounds.

Robinson was first among the three of us the other evening to land a walleye, a plump 17-incher that drew his rod into a deep bow before succumbing to a net managed deftly by Giefer.

With its plump green-gold sides, the fish appeared the very picture of good health, and was soon released.

Giefer, a 39-year employee of 3M, said the action, which was fast enough, would be "lights out'' beginning at about 8 p.m.

"Between 8 and 10, when you have to be off the lake, according to DNR rules, the walleye fishing can really be something," he said.

Years ago, Giefer took time off without pay from his day job so he could fish in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Ontario. He was pals with Bob Mehsikomer, whose TV shows "Thunder on the Water" and "Simply Fishing" were popular at the time, and their production provided Giefer with an excuse to accompany Mehsikomer in pursuit of big muskies and northern pike.

"Now here on Mille Lacs I fish muskies and bass on my own, or, if Fisher's needs help on one of their boats for an evening, I'll go out with them," Giefer said.

As 8 o'clock approached, one boatload of anglers materialized nearby, then another and another, until perhaps a half-dozen were afloat in our vicinity, seeking the same thrills that Minnesotans have for a century and more.

Namely, walleyes. On Mille Lacs. And lots of them.