Walleye fishing on Mille Lacs will be tightly controlled and conservatively managed for the foreseeable future to avoid the sort of unplanned closures needed in recent years to stop overruns of the state's yearly harvest limit.
The strategy is laid out in a proposed five-year management plan for the lake's walleyes, bass, northern pikes, muskies and perch. The Department of Natural Resources has fitted other major lakes with five-year plans to manage multiple species, but this is a first for Mille Lacs. The plan's public input period is set to close late next week.
At a web meeting Tuesday, DNR Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons told anglers and other Mille Lacs stakeholders the agency won't design regulations with the intent of having anglers remove every last walleye available for harvest.
The agency's higher goal is to maximize fishing opportunity, including catch-and-release. Another key objective of the five-year plan is to maintain strong walleye catch rates and a "high quality size structure.''
When it comes to setting yearly harvest regulations for Mille Lacs, the plan document says the DNR will act conservatively through 2026 in terms of deciding whether anglers can take home walleyes early in the season. This year, the agency set a narrow bag limit of one walleye, 21 to 23 inches long, or one over 28 inches, for the first 17 days of the season. June will be catch and release. Walleye fishing will close for the first two weeks of July, then resume under catch-and-release guidelines. DNR is hopeful to reopen a one-walleye bag starting Sept. 6, but the decision will depend on the season's estimated overall kill.
Minnesota's yearly allocation of walleyes from Mille Lacs is established under a co-management system with eight Chippewa bands that have treaty rights. This year's split is the same as it was in 2020: 87,800 pounds for the state and 62,200 pounds for the tribes. The five-year plan describes the joint 150,000-pound limit as the lake's "harvestable surplus'' — the amount of walleyes that can be harvested without affecting the long-term stability of the population.
Tom Heinrich, the DNR's Mille Lacs area fisheries supervisor, said this week that the agency is working in cooperation with the bands to potentially develop a new way of determining the harvestable surplus. Heinrich said DNR scientists believe there's room to liberalize the allotment. Still, Mille Lacs has special walleye rules due to concerns about overharvest. The population is reduced from previous decades but remains close to the lake's carrying capacity given a number of big system changes. Mille Lacs has been hit by invasive zebra mussels, invasive spiny water fleas and warming. In addition, increased water clarity has reduced walleye habitat. There are concerns about the sustainability of the lake's cold-water tullibee population — an important base of forage fish — and the DNR will study an apparent decline in the abundance of perch, the most important prey item for walleyes.
"We manage the fishery in a safe way,'' Heinrich said. "The bands have the same concerns.''
Parsons and Heinrich reminded the audience at Tuesday's meeting that the majority of the state's harvestable surplus is taken up by hooking mortality — the estimated amount of walleyes that die in the water from the stress of being caught and released. The rate of hooking mortality increases as water temperatures rise. The overall kill is estimated by the DNR as the season unfolds. Setting conservative guidelines early each season gives the state elbow room to remain within its harvest limit and avoid unplanned closures.
For at least the next five years, according to the plan, the state will target bigger walleyes for harvest. That's partly because the bands target 14- to 18-inch walleyes, primarily through spring gill netting and spearing. Hooking mortality also kills fish in that range. Generally, it's advantageous to spread harvest across as many age and size groups as possible, Heinrich said.
Also noted in the plan is the DNR's intention to limit walleye fishing tournaments on Mille Lacs. New rules will constrain tournaments to cool water periods of May, June, September and October, minimizing hooking mortality.
For smallmouth bass, no tournaments will be allowed during spawning season, and the current 17- to 21-inch protected slot limit will be replaced by a 17-inch maximum size limit to keep more trophies in the lake. Anglers will be able to keep three bass 17 inches or smaller. DNR will aim to manage the fishery so that an average of 10% or more are at least 20 inches in size.
For northern pike, the DNR hopes to foster large sizes by disallowing anyone from keeping a northern that exceeds 30 inches. The possession for smaller pike will be 3.
For muskie, the DNR was ready to stick to its status quo of stocking the lake every other year with 3,000 muskie fingerlings. But at the meeting, several muskie anglers urged Parsons to take stronger action to revive abundance of the species. Not since 2008 or earlier have muskie anglers been satisfied with the lake's muskie fishery, they said. Parsons said the DNR will listen to the concerns.
For perch, no changes are foreseen in the 20-fish daily limit or 40-fish possession limit. DNR said it will study the apparent decline in abundance. Biologists don't believe it's linked to fishing pressure.