As state officials devise tighter walleye regulations for Lake Mille Lacs, anglers, resort operators, bait shops and other stakeholders have been left to wrestle with two paradoxes.

As described last week by the Department of Natural Resources, the lake's overall walleye population is down 10%, lowering this year's allowable harvest. But despite the population decline, the catch rate on Mille Lacs this winter has soared to its highest level in at least 35 years.

Secondly, despite miserable ice conditions and an epic decline in fishing pressure this winter, anglers reportedly caught a mind-boggling 7,991 pounds of walleyes — more than triple the amount harvested last winter when there was 70% more fishing pressure.

"When you have so few anglers on the ice, how can they catch that many more fish than the masses caught a year ago?'' asked Jason Bahr, owner of Tutt's Bait & Tackle in Garrison. The estimated harvest of nearly 8,000 pounds of walleyes so far this winter is consequential, because it counts against the state's 2024 walleye allocation of 91,550 pounds — an amount certain to require a return to catch-and-release-only fishing for a portion of the upcoming season.

Bahr sits on the DNR's Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee. He said the DNR isn't lying about the data, but he and others suspect the agency's collection of data is inaccurate.

Bahr said he agrees that walleye fishing on Mille Lacs is phenomenal now. But he believes the high catch rate is caused by walleye abundance, not shrinkage.

"When anglers are catching a lot of fish, it's hard to think the walleye population went down," said Brian Nerbonne, DNR regional fisheries manager in St. Paul.

What follows is the agency's explanation for the counterintuitive conditions:

The DNR shares management of Mille Lacs with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and several other Native American tribes with treaty rights. Together, they recently estimated an overall 10% decline in the lake's walleye population based on a trio of datasets: Computer modeling, fall netting surveys and a population estimate, once every five years, by an independent expert.

Starting last year, face-to-face surveys of anglers by DNR creel clerks detected a strong walleye bite and rising catch rate. Fisheries managers reasoned that the fish were hungry, not overabundant. The rationale was based on previous parallels between a strong walleye bite on Mille Lacs and a shortage of natural forage for the walleyes to eat.

The hypothesis was supported by forage netting surveys and the DNR's annual analysis of the body condition of walleyes netted in the fall.

The forage netting showed a very low abundance of baby perch and hardly any tullibee – the two primary sources of food for Mille Lacs walleyes. Fall netting crews also detected a decline in walleye plumpness by measuring length and weight of netted fish and comparing them to past ratios. The decline in plumpness was most pronounced in younger walleyes.

"It's not that the fish are incredibly skinny right now, but they're less plump than last year," Nerbonne said. "They're not getting as much food as they want to get."

Last fall, Mille Lacs managers predicted a high catch rate to carry over from fall to winter. They were right. Based on creel surveys, DNR recorded a winter walleye catch rate of .23 fish per hour, or one fish for every four-plus hours of fishing. In 35 years of recordkeeping, it nearly doubled the previous winter high set in 2016.

But by the DNR's own calculation of this winter's fishing effort, Mille Lacs almost could be considered a ghost town. Surveys pegged winter fishing pressure so far this year at 175,712 angler hours (one angler fishing one hour is an angler hour). That's easily the lowest amount of winter fishing estimated for Mille Lacs over the past decade.

Nerbonne said several factors contributed to this year's oversized harvest of nearly 8,000 pounds. A year ago, winter harvest was estimated at 2,294 pounds of walleyes while fishing pressure was estimated at 578,000 hours.

But unlike customary years when fishing pressure on Mille Lacs gets inflated from casual hours spent by groups staying on the ice for days at a time in ice shacks and wheelhouses, this year's effort centered on a more skilled set of anglers cherry-picking the best times to catch fish and moving around to find hotspots.

Moreover, the anglers who have been showing up on Mille Lacs have benefitted from relative calm, Nerbonne said. Many ice anglers believe that catchability is negatively affected by heavy vehicle traffic, lots of fishing lines in the water, vibration and noise from electric generators, electric augers and other commotion. Combining the favorable surface conditions with this winter's strong bite and the high skill level of active anglers, the DNR isn't backing away from its winter harvest estimate.

Now at hand is the job of setting a new open-water walleye regulation that Nerbonne expects to announce before the March 14 opening of the Northwest Sportshow. Throughout the past two years, the DNR has allowed Mille Lacs anglers a daily bag limit of one walleye sized in a narrow slot of up to 23 inches in length, or one over 28 inches.

But Nerbonne said the uninterrupted harvest opportunity afforded anglers in 2022 and '23 will end this season depending on when the DNR denotes a period when walleyes can only be caught and released. As in the past, staggered harvest opportunities are meant to avoid an unplanned closure of walleye fishing (not even catch-and-release).

According to the 2024 safe harvest level agreement reached between the DNR and the bands, the overall quota is 157,500 pounds of walleyes, down 10% from last year's 175,000 pounds. The state's share is 91,550 pounds, but the completion of winter fishing could bring it down to below 83,000 pounds. In 2023, neither the state nor the tribes exceeded their quota, Nerbonne said.