Lake Mille Lacs walleyes have fascinated multitudes of Minnesota anglers over countless generations, in part because the historically prolific big lake is fairly easily accessed from the Twin Cities, home to the state’s largest concentration of fish-chasers.
But few know the lake as well as Steve Lawrence, who grew up hard by its shores and who this summer will celebrate 30 years of employment with the Department of Natural Resources.
During his career, Lawrence, 63, has conducted nearly 30,000 angler creel interviews at various Mille Lacs landings, helping to estimate the number and size of fish being caught in the lake.
The report from Lawrence this winter? Mille Lacs walleye action likely will be gangbusters when the open-water season begins May 14.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that most Mille Lacs walleyes likely to hit anglers’ baits were hatched in 2013 and measure 12 to 14 inches long. Therefore they will have to be released, under proposed regulation scenarios detailed in a DNR meeting with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee at Garrison, Minn., Tuesday night.
Now in his 21st year of checking Mille Lacs anglers’ winter catches — including released fish — Lawrence says he has never seen such fast action.
“In the past, my good years would be one walleye per winter angler,” he said. “This winter, the average has been over three. That’s a gigantic increase. We’re off the charts.”
Lawrence and a creel survey partner rotate their checkpoints among 34 Mille Lacs accesses. Each eight-hour shift, they move among preselected access points on an hourly basis, recording fish catching and harvesting activity.
“We ask when they started fishing that day, so we know the hours they’ve been on the lake, and we ask what they’ve caught and kept, and what they’ve released,” Lawrence said.
“On Mille Lacs, most people know exactly what they’ve caught and released. A surprising number keep a log.”
DNR large lake specialist Eric Jensen, stationed in Aitkin, believes the active bite this winter among 2013 year-class Mille Lacs walleyes likely is the result of that population’s large size relative to the number of forage fish available to it.
Yellow perch is a primary Mille Lacs walleye prey species, and a bountiful perch hatch also in 2013 likely helped sustain walleyes of the same age.
Now, those perch are a little big for 2013 walleyes to munch on, and the result might be that fish hatched that year exceed available forage, at least somewhat (Mille Lacs walleyes also feed on tullibees).
Thus the fast action on anglers’ baits.
“Walleyes that size often prefer to feed on ‘age zero’ perch [those hatched in the current year],” Jensen said.
The issue is critically important at this juncture of Mille Lacs management because walleyes older and younger than the 2013 class are smaller.
As Jensen puts it, the 2013 fish “are the only game in town.”
Still, some knowledgeable observers around the lake suggest perhaps some harvest of 2013 walleyes should be allowed this summer — instead of limiting the lake’s walleye take only to 18- to 20-inch fish, as the DNR suggested in Garrison on Tuesday.
Lawrence’s winter creel surveys bolster this thinking.
If, for example, 2013 walleyes are still hitting anglers’ baits at extraordinary rates this summer, perhaps many of these fish will die anyway after being released.
Such “hooking mortality,” or its estimation, will be included in the 28,600-pound quota allowed anglers during the coming open water season. (Eight Chippewa tribes will get 11,400 pounds).
For perspective on the lake’s current plight, this 40,000-pound “safe harvest” quota pales compared to the lake’s 2006 quota of 600,000 pounds.
These and other changes that Mille Lacs has undergone since Lawrence was a kid helping his parents run the now-closed Garrison Creek Marina, with its 117 covered boat slips, are, he said, barely imaginable.
“I had a 16-foot Alumacraft F7 boat and a 25-horse Johnson,” he said. “The hot lure at the time was an orange Flatfish baited with nightcrawlers, with a 2-ounce keychain sinker to hold it down.”
The biggest Mille Lacs walleye he’s seen? “It wasn’t during a survey interview,” he said. “It was a walleye I just happened to see after it was caught. It was 34½ inches long, weighed 14.6 pounds and was caught on Garrison Reef about 20 years ago.”
The DNR will meet again Feb. 24 with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee to further discuss the lake’s open-water walleye regulations.
Editor’s note: Coming Sunday, Outdoors writer Tony Kennedy on how the DNR estimates the number of Mille Lacs walleyes that die after being caught and released, and the role this “hooking mortality” plays in the lake’s management.