Walleye fishing on Mille Lacs will take a step backward this year under a new set of regulations that will disallow any harvest throughout the 2020 open-water season.
A year ago at this time, Mille Lacs anglers and business owners were looking forward to three initial weeks of a one-fish bag limit. After that, anglers were allowed to target walleyes on a catch-and-release basis throughout June, July and August.
But the Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday that too many walleyes were taken through the ice during January and February to allow for any more keepers in 2020. The move is part of extensive walleye protections set in place years ago in partnership with eight Chippewa bands.
Even worse this year for state-licensed anglers is that catch-and-release opportunities will cease in July under a one-month closure. The shutdown will coincide with a ban against using most live bait. If all goes as planned, catch-and-release fishing for walleyes would resume in August and extend into the fall.
The extent of the restrictions surprised Mille Lacs area residents who are close to the fishing scene.
“It’s not stuff we like,’’ said Kevin McQuoid, owner of Mac’s Twin Bay Resort in Isle. “Being shut down in July with no live bait? It’s surprising they had to go that far.’’
McQuoid agreed that Mille Lacs drew huge crowds of ice anglers this winter because deep slush and poor ice conditions on Upper Red Lake, Leech Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish and other popular locations focused attention on Mille Lacs in central Minnesota and Lake of the Woods in the far north.
Combined with a winter bag limit that allowed Mille Lacs anglers to keep one walleye between 20 and 23 inches long, the DNR estimated a winter catch of nearly 30,000 pounds. That’s as many pounds of walleyes as were caught last year on Mille Lacs from Jan. 1 through May 31. The state’s remaining 2020 allotment of 57,800 pounds will be absorbed by the incidental deaths of walleyes that are caught and released, the DNR said.
Tom Neustrom, a veteran fishing guide based in Grand Rapids who sits on the DNR’s citizen advisory committee for Mille Lacs, said he and others believe the DNR over-estimates the mortality rate of walleyes caught and released. The dispute could be revitalized by the latest restrictions. Neustrom said the toughest pill for anglers will be the July closure coupled with no live bait (except sucker minnows longer than 8 inches for targeting muskies and northern pike.)
“I’m very surprised they went as strict as they did,’’ Neustrom said.
DNR Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said July walleye fishing on Mille Lacs is being canceled to ensure the return of fall fishing — a tradition that many local anglers have missed over the past several years.
“We landed on this option because it significantly lowers the risk of an unplanned closure,’’ Parsons said.
He said winter fishing pressure this year exceeded 3 million hours, eclipsing the all-time winter record for Mille Lacs of 2.8 million hours of angling set in 2009.
Mark Utne, a longtime resident of the area who sits on the citizen advisory committee, said the DNR is staffed with dedicated, knowledgeable personnel. But he believes biology takes a back seat to politics when it comes to state and tribal co-management of Mille Lacs.
“It’s a great lake. It’s amazing the fish you can catch,’’ Utne said. “But all of this … it’s not making people happy.’’