ON LAKE MILLE LACS – Mike Lencowski has been baiting hooks with leeches for so many summers he could do it sleepwalking.
Also while asleep he probably could position a slip bobber on an angler’s fishing line so the leech dangles just so near the bottom of this giant lake, increasing its chance of being inhaled by a walleye.
But Lencowski wasn’t asleep the other morning. Far from it.
As a launch (definition: “big boat”) captain and fishing guide working for Twin Pines Resort, Motel and Restaurant on Mille Lacs, he was either moving his 46-foot craft to a mud flat or submerged rock pile, dropping an anchor — or impaling leeches on hooks before instructing his 15 or so angler-passengers to “drop them in the water.”
None of Lencowski’s charges fished with their own equipment. Why should they? Included in the $35 adult admission price for a morning on Mille Lacs were rods, reels, hooks, lines and sinkers; the whole nine yards.
“All they need is a fishing license,” Lencowski said.
A Minnesota tradition, Mille Lacs launch fishing is chugging along this summer amid the lake’s toughest walleye-harvest restrictions in history.
Only walleyes between 19 and 21 inches can be kept, and the limit of these fish is one per angler — a far cry from the old days when boatloads of launch anglers returned to docks after four hours on Mille Lacs with two to four plump walleyes apiece in their possession.
The tight walleye regulations this year are necessary, the Department of Natural Resources says, so sport anglers don’t exceed the 28,600 pounds allocated to the state under the DNR’s comanagement agreement with eight Chippewa bands.
DNR and Chippewa biologists determined the Mille Lacs walleye safe harvest this year is just 40,000 pounds, a 33 percent drop from 2014. The 2015 allotment is the lowest on record and an 84 percent falloff from the 250,000-pound quota in 2013.
Since 2000, the lake’s safe walleye harvest has ranged from 370,000 to 600,000 pounds.
Walleye allocations that large help explain why some Mille Lacs launch operators, like Twin Pines, historically have put as many as three big boats on the lake at once, some with 50 client-anglers aboard.
But this year’s tight walleye restrictions have slowed the Mille Lacs launch business.
“There’s no question the one-fish limit hurts us,” said Linda Eno, who with her husband, Bill, owns Twin Pines.
Also problematic is a night fishing ban this summer that requires anglers to be off the lake by 10 p.m. In years past, summer launch trips that ran from 8 p.m. to midnight were the most popular.
Fishing — meaning catching — was best then.
Now, Twin Pines runs three launches daily, from 8 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. — provided they have enough customers.
“If they [the Department of Natural Resources] would let us stay on the lake at least until 11, it would help the lake’s launch business a lot,” Linda Eno said. “Most of our launch customers come from the Twin Cities, and if they get off work at 4:30 or 5, a lot of them can’t get here by 6.
“If we could run a launch boat from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., that would be a lot better.”
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Ironically, given the one-walleye limit and the reams of negative press Mille Lacs has suffered in recent years — walleye fishing is good on the lake this summer.
Not pretty good.
If you doubt that, check out the websites and Facebook pages of the 20 or so businesses that still float launches on Mille Lacs.
This from the Facebook page of Fisher’s Resort near Malmo:
The day bite has been hit or miss but the evening bite has been consistently good! The 6-10 p.m. shift is definitely the time to be out for your best chance. The females have been biting better so we have had a nice mix of large and small walleye. Midday try the deep water between flats with lead core. Otherwise rigging with a crawler and spinner has been working also.
Bill Eno of Twin Pines reports similar catches. “It’s been common for our evening launch to catch 100 or more walleyes,” Eno said.
Not all of the fish are big. Many, in fact, are in the 12- to 14-inch range, too small to keep even if it were legal to do so.
The good news is these fish represent the lake’s future, and their relative abundance gives hope that someday the lake’s walleyes will rebound.
Greg Daszkiewicz and his buddies, brothers Ron and Roger St. Clair, fished with Lencowski the other morning, and doubtless they would have enjoyed reeling in a few whoppers.
Instead, their catches were of the smaller variety.
“Every time I go fishing with him,” Daszkiewicz said, nodding to Roger St. Clair, “he says, ‘Don’t worry, I’m wearing my lucky shirt.’ But wherever we go, we don’t catch that many fish. So I told him awhile back, ‘Hey, get a whole new wardrobe.’ ”
Such banter is an important part of launch fishing.
As are kids’ smiles.
Just ask 7-year-old Kayden Collins, who along with her parents, Kristi and Phil of Elk River, and brothers Cody, 13, and Gavin, 8, joined Lencowski on Mille Lacs the other morning.
Though seemingly a little afraid of the walleyes she caught, she nonetheless wanted to catch more.
As do we all.