State and tribal fisheries biologists are seeing enough balance in the Mille Lacs walleye population to revive an open-water harvest on the popular fishing lake after several years of closures and tight catch-and-release limits.
The announcement Thursday morning by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was cautiously received as good news by owners of resorts and other businesses around Mille Lacs, who have been hurt by nearly five years of tough summer walleye restrictions.
DNR Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons acknowledged that the new regulation will be designed to get more people to the lake without exceeding safe harvest levels.
Details of the 2019 special regulation won’t be announced until March, but Parsons said anglers likely will be able to keep one walleye within a certain size range. The harvest will be limited to cool weather periods in the spring and fall, most likely starting on May 11, the statewide fishing opener. Summer months on Mille Lacs will be a time to fish for bass and northerns.
“Walleye are now at a level where we can cautiously allow anglers to start keeping some fish during the open-water season,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said. “This is good news for anglers, Mille Lacs area businesses and the resource.”
Bradley Harrington, DNR commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said it’s critical that the harvest limits continue to allow for the recovery of walleye. “We join the state in cautious optimism about the trend in increasing spawning biomass,” Harrington said.
DNR officials will meet Tuesday in Isle, Minn., with a citizens’ panel known as the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee to start determining the details. The harvest must be set to stay within the state’s 2019 walleye allocation of 87,800 pounds.
“It’s good news. It’s better than what we had,” said Eddy Lyback, a member of the committee and the owner of Lyback’s Marine and Lyback’s Ice Fishing in Isle. He said he expects a strong walleye bite this spring based on widespread success this winter by Mille Lacs ice anglers.
Some members of the advisory committee previously recommended a limited harvest in spring and fall to avoid heavy mortality of walleyes caught and released in hot weather, Lyback said. Known as hooking mortality, the lost fish count against the state’s share.
“I think that’s actually a pretty good idea,” Lyback said of the proposed spring/fall season.
Jon Odle Jr. of Rocky Reef Resort said it’s been hard on area resorts for walleyes to be off limits as table fare over spring, summer and fall. Rocky Reef used to have a burst of business in October when walleye anglers would converge on the lake around the full moon.
“Will you get those fisherman back? I don’t know,” Odle said. “I’d like to say it’s going to help make everything great again, but I don’t know.”
Tina Chapman, a resort owner in Isle who also promotes Mille Lacs tourism, said she’s reserving judgment on the announced change until the regulation is finalized. “We have to wait and see,” she said.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said ice fishing has helped stabilize the local economy around Mille Lacs since a year ago, when the DNR allowed ice anglers to keep one walleye — with a length limit this winter of 21 to 23 inches.
It’s important for boaters to be able to share in the harvest, she said.
“We know the walleye are surviving and doing well in the lake,” Erickson said.
Mille Lacs walleyes reproduce naturally, with no stocking by the DNR. But lakewide abundance of the species has been hurt by the unexplained disappearance of too many baby fish before they reach their third summer in the lake. Some have died from cannibalism, reports have shown.
But Thursday’s DNR announcement cited an upward trend in the population — enough to “cautiously allow anglers to start keeping some fish.”
More than half of the walleye biomass in Mille Lacs belongs to a single class of fish born in 2013. The DNR said Thursday that the 2013 class is starting to produce young fish that appear to be surviving.
Parsons said classes of walleyes born in 2016 and 2017 are “looking average to perhaps above average” and that the population is on a “positive trajectory.”
The safe harvest level of walleyes in Mille Lacs is established each year by the DNR and eight Chippewa bands with fishing rights. Last year the two groups couldn’t agree on a safe harvest level, with the DNR setting a higher poundage than did the bands. This year’s consensus allocation of 150,000 total pounds (87,800 pounds is the state’s share) is what the DNR set a year ago.
But the state’s allocation last year was burdened by excessive catches from previous fishing seasons, which counted against the 2018 limit, so there was no room for anglers to keep summer walleyes. This year, the 87,800-pound mark for state anglers has no encumbrances other than the winter catch, which could exceed 11,000 pounds.