The safe bet is that Mille Lacs walleye fishing will continue this summer and fall without a shutdown of the kind the lake experienced in early August a year ago.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Don Pereira won’t declare as much — yet. “This lake has proved me wrong too many times,’’ he said last week.
But the numbers strongly suggest walleye fishing will continue on the big lake this summer and fall.
According to the DNR, through June 30 just 6,950 pounds of walleyes have been harvested from Mille Lacs out of the year’s 28,600-pound sport-fishing quota.
The 6,950 pounds, the DNR says, amounts to 1,487 walleyes.
Both figures are estimates, based on creel surveys. Additionally, the estimates aren’t of fish actually caught and kept — because only catch-and-release walleye fishing is allowed on Mille Lacs this summer.
Instead, they are best guesses as to the number of walleyes that have succumbed to hooking mortality, meaning those that have died after being caught and released, an aggregate that is included in the harvest quota.
Since mid-May, the Mille Lacs walleye bite has generally ranged from very good to outstanding. Most walleyes being caught have been in the 12- to 16-inch range. But fish greater than 20 inches, and some 25 inches and more, have been fairly common as well.
In a year when one or more of these fish could be kept, Mille Lacs would be a very busy lake. But with a zero-harvest walleye restriction governing the lake this year, anglers apparently are staying away in droves.
Which is why this year’s estimated “harvest’’ is so low, Pereira said: Too few anglers are fishing the lake.
OK, but let’s take a look at the same period on Mille Lacs a year ago, when the walleye angling quota for the period Dec. 1, 2014-Dec. 1, 2015, also was 28,600 pounds.
Through June 30, 2015, the DNR estimated that anglers had harvested 13,300 pounds of Mille Lacs walleyes, leaving 15,300 pounds remaining in the quota. (The total Mille Lacs 2015 walleye harvest quota was the same as this year, 40,000 pounds, with 11,400 pounds allotted to eight Chippewa bands.)
The walleye harvest accelerated in the following two-week period a year ago, the DNR said. A combination of a hot walleye bite, considerable fishing pressure over the July 4, 2015, holiday and elevated water temperatures resulted in an estimated 12,300 pounds of walleyes being taken between July 1-July 15, 2015, the DNR said.
Assuming the DNR’s creel survey for the two-week period was accurate, this would have been only the second time in 30 years that Mille Lacs walleye catch rates were higher in July than in the second half of June.
All of which led to the walleye-fishing shutdown in early August a year ago, with the DNR saying anglers had by then taken their allotted quota from the lake.
The big difference on the lake between this year and last was that anglers a year ago were allowed to take one walleye measuring between 19 and 21 inches, or one longer than 28 inches — size classes of fish that were very hard to find in Mille Lacs in 2015, as they remain this year.
If DNR creel survey numbers are to be believed, that one-fish, tough-to-find walleye limit was sufficient to drive relatively higher angler pressure to Mille Lacs last year compared to this year — despite the fact that fishing is probably better, on average, this summer than last, and walleyes being caught are larger.
Challenging as it is to believe, perhaps the possibility of catching a single walleye that can be kept, however slight the chances, was enough a year ago to compel anglers to fish Mille Lacs, whereas this summer’s no-harvest restriction keeps more of them away — despite the top-notch walleye action available on most days.
Another possibility is that one or both of the DNR’s creel surveys is wrong.
Pereira doesn’t think that’s the case. He believes the smaller harvest estimate this year is primarily caused by a falloff of angler pressure.
Either way, bet that walleye fishing will remain open this summer and fall on Mille Lacs.
Bet as well that, on most days, the lake’s walleyes will be biting.