Despite Gov. Mark Dayton's optimism, data will be the key factor determining whether Lake Mille Lacs can sustain walleye ice fishing this winter, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in an interview Friday.
Landwehr said he spoke with Dayton on Friday, a day after the governor made comments that seemed to guarantee a walleye ice fishing season this year. Landwehr said surveys of the lake will determine what the agency proposes, whether the now-closed walleye season will reopen in December and what parameters would govern it.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will make its proposal for the winter season at a mid-October meeting, with a final decision likely by the third week of October.
"I think what [Dayton] said was not entirely the way he believes things ought to happen," Landwehr said of the governor's comments at a St. Paul middle school on Thursday. "He's always been absolutely behind the process that is laid out between the [local Indian] bands and the state [for developing] season recommendations."
The season's length and fishing quota also depend on negotiations with local Indian bands, whose treaty rights allot them a portion of the harvest.
Because of shrinking walleye numbers, the DNR has gradually reduced the annual harvest quota — which was 40,000 pounds this year, compared with 500,000 pounds in 2012. The quota was quickly exceeded this summer, prompting the DNR's closure decision and shocking resort owners.
"What the governor is saying and what we totally agree with … [is] to strive for the highest possible opportunity for the anglers that we can," Landwehr said.
The DNR traditionally makes season recommendations in January. But because of the early closure this summer, the recommendations will be updated this fall based on survey findings.
The survey will measure the number of walleye and eligibility for spawning, determining whether an adequate population is achievable. Additionally, the DNR plans to restock the lake with walleye in the spring, as it has done with Red Lake in Beltrami County.
Both the governor and the DNR want an ice fishing season, Landwehr said, as many local resorts depend on winter business, which is more popular than summer fishing despite lower catch rates.
Ice fishing of other species, including perch and northern pike, will still be available this season, Landwehr added.
"We will still be pushing for a season in the negotiations to the extent the [walleye] population should allow it," Landwehr said. "But there's no certain outcome yet of what those negotiations will bring."
He added: "I don't want anyone to think it's all grim and bleak."