– Mike Skalsky caught just two walleyes Saturday morning on a less-crowded-than-usual fishing opener on famed Lake Mille Lacs.

So did his brother, Chuck.

They had to release the fish because of tightest-ever size restrictions on the state’s most popular fishing lake. But they didn’t mind.

“We just come for the fun; it’s a tradition for us,” said Mike, 68, of Rush City. “We just want to fish.”

That sentiment was common among anglers fishing the 200-square-mile lake on Saturday’s fishing opener. They came to renew rituals despite regulations that allowed them to keep just one walleye 19 to 21 inches long, or one over 28 inches.

But far fewer of them showed up than normal, despite ideal weather.

About 100 boats, a fraction of the usual number, bobbed in gentle waves under a blue sky at midmorning near Malmo at the lake’s northeast corner.

“I’d say it’s maybe 25 percent of normal,” said Randy Zahradka, 65, a launch captain at Fisher’s Resort, surveying the scene. “Usually there are so many boats you could walk across them.”

Greg Fisher and his family have operated their namesake resort for 56 years. Eight of his 11 cabins were full Friday night and many of the 73 RV owners who lease lots came for the opener.

But just 50 anglers paid $10 to launch their boats at his protected harbor — about half of a typical opener. And only six anglers fished Saturday morning on Fisher’s 55-foot launch captained by Zahradka. Normally, about 20 might have made that trip.

Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Luke Croatt, who patrolled the lake Saturday with partner Scott Fitzgerald, agreed the number of anglers was down dramatically. A public landing near Malmo wasn’t full.

“Normally it would be full by 6 a.m. and they’d be parking out on the highway,” he said. Most of the anglers they checked had caught some fish, though few were able to keep any.

Still, Fisher generally was pleased with the opener.

“It was better than I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Running a business dependent on fishing, when the fish and fishing regulations are in constant flux, is difficult. Some customers canceled reservations and headed to other lakes with higher walleye limits.

“It’s frustrating,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we’re at the bottom.”

The one-walleye limit has affected Fisher’s financial decisions.

“We were going to add more decks to our cabins, but we held off to see what happens.”

But while business was down Saturday, Fisher is optimistic. “From Memorial Day on it looks good,” he said.

And while anglers can keep only one walleye, Fisher notes that northern and smallmouth bass are at record levels, and liberal regulations encourage anglers to keep them to eat. But he acknowledges that could be a tough sell for some anglers.

“Walleye is king,” he said.

More than walleyes

Like other resort owners, Fisher has tried to diversify his clientele, aiming for families who might view fishing as secondary to simply enjoying time at a lake.

“Mille Lacs has been so hard-core fishing that it might take a while to change,” he said. “Hopefully it will work.”

State tourism officials have launched a promotional effort to diversify and convince potential visitors the Mille Lacs area isn’t a one-trick pony.

Its state-funded “Do the Lake” advertising campaign, aimed primarily at Twin Cities residents, is touting other fish species — including northerns and bass — and other recreational opportunities.

“There’s more than walleye fishing,” said John Edman, state tourism director. “There’s biking, golfing, boating, sailing — all of the summertime recreational activities — and tremendous fishing beyond walleyes for northerns and bass.”

“There’s hope walleyes will return [in high numbers],” Edman said, “but [local businesses] don’t want to wait. They are trying to diversify.”

Protecting walleyes

The lake’s tight walleye regulations are necessary so the harvest doesn’t exceed the 28,600 pounds allocated to state anglers under the 1837 treaty with eight Chippewa Indian bands.

The bands and the state determined the safe harvest this year was just 40,000 pounds, with the bands being allocated 11,400 pounds and the state’s anglers getting 28,600.

That 40,000-pound safe harvest target is the lowest ever and an 84 percent decline from the 250,000 pounds allowed in 2013. Since 2000, the safe harvest has ranged from 370,000 to 600,000 pounds.

But local businesses are hoping anglers might be satisfied with smallmouth bass or northern pike.

Anglers can keep up to 10 northerns. But they can only keep a northern longer than 30 inches if they catch and possess two northerns shorter than 30 inches.

And at Mille Lacs, they can keep six smallmouth bass, but only one over 18 inches. The bass season isn’t yet open in the rest of the state, except in the northeast.

The tighter walleye regulations don’t bother Dale Thiel, 69, of Princeton, who has been coming to Fisher’s Resort for more than a decade.

“I’m not a meat hunter,” he said. “If I can’t keep fish, it doesn’t bother me a bit. I just enjoy the relaxation. It never crossed my mind to go somewhere else.”

Craig Messner, 64, of Stillwater, has been coming to the resort for 35 years. He and his wife, Judy, own a 40-foot trailer that they park there. Messner and two fishing buddies went out shortly after midnight Saturday to troll for walleyes, then went out again after sunrise.

Of the one-fish limit, he says: “We’re not happy with it. But we’ve been coming here so long, we don’t care. Keeping fish is not that important. We’re more into sport fishing than eating.”

And like other anglers, he’s hopeful walleyes will rebound.

“It’s going to come back, eventually,” he said.

For Dawn Hanson, her daughter, Greta, and their family, fishing “is really important.”

“But we don’t mind catch-and-release,” said Dawn. “We just like to catch them. It won’t stop us from coming up.”

Said Greta: “It’s just fun to catch them.”