A nostalgic portrayal of the last walleye catch of the year before the “tragic” closure of the Mille Lacs walleye fishery reverberated across the state this week. But the walleye shutdown is actually a victory for anyone who cares about the ongoing presence of walleye in this state — especially anglers. The closure punctuates the end of an era where unsustainable fishing caused steady declines of walleye in Mille Lacs and other lakes. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is not afraid to issue seemingly unsavory fishing regulations for the long-term viability of fish populations — and that precious Minnesota pastime.
As a Minnesota fisherman my entire life, I can attest to the magic of catching walleye. The fish bite best at dawn or dusk, when the morning or evening sun sparkles best on lake water. Their bite starts as a mere subtlety, as if the fish prefer to taste the food before proceeding any further. As a result, hooking a walleye requires finesse. Yanking too hard or too soon will let the fish get away; allowing the fish to ruminate over the bait too long gives it a chance to figure out that the hook and lure isn’t a real meal.
There is a certain amount of frustration inherent in learning to feel for the right instant to set the hook, but it is contrasted with the feeling of accomplishment when you finally pull in your first one.
Walleye are also among the tastiest of Minnesota fish, with a clean, slightly buttery flavor and firm, flaky meat. There is an allure to this fish over others that we find in Minnesota lakes.
Walleye require specific habitat and have a long maturation time (up to five years for females), which makes their populations vulnerable to overfishing. Taking large trophy fish can be particularly devastating to populations because large females produce significantly more eggs than their smaller counterparts. Walleyes can live past 20 years, yet most fish are harvested at three to five years — often just as they are reaching maturity. As more anglers flock to Mille Lacs in search of walleye, the population size dwindles.
Resort stays and fishing tourism are no doubt important to the state economy and local livelihoods. Walleyes have high recreational value for Minnesota anglers as well as ceremonial value for native tribes, such as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. But the cost of a population collapse of our state fish in Mille Lacs far exceeds any value lost in the closure of the fishery until Dec. 1.
Maybe, instead of pointing fingers at one another, we should ask: Is the way we have been fishing for walleyes unsustainable?
Fish stocking has long been considered the panacea of dwindling populations, but it is problematic. First, fish stocking is only effective up to the carrying capacity of the lake, or the maximum amount of fish given proper habitat and food resources. If food is not available for young walleyes, they will quickly starve and/or cannibalize one another. Second, fish stocking always carries the risk of genetic depression, or making the offspring less fit because of “watered-down genes.” It is always better to let nature take its course to replenish the population. In accordance with the principle of survival of the fittest, certain traits that biologists aren’t even aware of may be selected in the course of reproduction and survival to adulthood. Only in drastic circumstances should we meddle with the locally evolved adaptations and intra-lake genetic diversity.
Walleye declines are not unique to Mille Lacs. Similar declines are likely happening throughout Minnesota lakes, especially those that have high fishing traffic, are situated near population centers or have extensive facilities such as resorts. These declines may be less visible in lakes where the DNR devotes fewer resources in monitoring and management. A targeted recovery on Mille Lacs may have the effect of further delaying conservation of other Minnesota lakes. More protection ultimately means more fish — and larger fish — for the future.
However, the future of the walleye is uncertain due to climate change and invasive species, which is why we need to be even more careful with overfishing. As the air and lake temperatures warm, walleye likely will migrate within lakes to deeper areas, seeking cooler temperatures. When anglers pursue them, they will cause more stress on the walleyes by bringing them a greater distance to the surface and exposing the fish to warmer surface temperatures, where there is less dissolved oxygen and greater physiological expenditure. We can expect increased catch-and-release mortality. There also may be an elimination of cold-water prey species, such as the tullibee and yellow perch.
Invasive species further exacerbate the walleye decline. Zebra mussels and spiny water fleas, both well established in Mille Lacs, filter out food items for young walleye and make water clearer, exposing the walleye to predators. The added pressure on walleyes from invasive species will not cause their extinction in Mille Lacs, but it certainly means that the population numbers must be carefully managed.
Mille Lacs is a wake-up call. We can feel a bit of relief now that the season is closed for the summer and the population will not suffer further losses before winter. The DNR has taken this firm stance in favor of the long-term value of repairing the walleye population instead of favoring the short-term gains from resorts or private enjoyment this summer. Overall, the decision represents a win for the resorts and recreational anglers alike; the walleye population of Mille Lacs, and, hopefully, the rest of the state can now be carefully managed so that it does not reach a point of collapse.
The thrill of future generations feeling the subtle walleye bite and the joy of finally hooking the fish and reeling it to the boat are both here to stay. For this, I am willing to take the rest of the summer off.
Johnny Bartz, of Edina, is a doctoral student in ecosystem science and policy.