Minnesota's planned shutdown of Mille Lacs walleye fishing for the month of July created more than enough cushion under the lake's quota system to ensure a full season of fall fishing, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources.

The report projects that state-licensed anglers will finish the year 15% to 20% under the annual walleye allotment set by the DNR and eight Chippewa bands. The results stand in contrast to previous years when Minnesota exceeded or barely stayed under the safe-harvest cap.

State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said the DNR will attempt to incorporate the unused 2020 allotment in next year's quota negotiations. He also said the upcoming talks with tribal resource officials will be broader than in the recent past.

The DNR will continue to meet yearly with the tribes to set limits on walleye fishing, but Parsons said a lake management plan based on longer-term goals could provide new "sideboards'' in the annual negotiations. Framing allotment discussions around a three-year, five-year or 10-year plan would allow for greater stability and consistency in the state's walleye fishing approach, he said.

"We're looking for a better way to do business'' and remove some uncertainty for the public, Parsons said.

According to the DNR's Mille Lacs fishing report, walleye harvest by state-licensed anglers totaled 64,339 pounds through the end of August — far less than the 2020 allotment of 87,800 pounds. About 44% of the catch — an estimated 9,125 fish — occurred over winter. The remainder were fish estimated to have died from being caught and released since May 9.

In a separate development concerning Mille Lacs, the DNR is starting to discuss the possibility of a lottery-based harvest tag system for summer anglers. Over the past four years, ice anglers on Mille Lacs have been granted a one-fish bag limit for slot-specific walleyes. But with few exceptions, open-water walleye fishing on Mille Lacs has been limited to catch-and-release.

The harvest tag idea would allow summer anglers to keep a controlled number of walleyes of a specific size. The tag system would be similar to the drawings hunters enter for the chance to bag certain game animals.

"It's more complicated, but it's something to consider,'' Parsons said. "It would allow us a limited harvest in periods of the year other than the winter.''

Stretching out

Five-year walleye management plans for Mille Lacs are not new. They were used before deep concerns were raised nearly a decade ago about declining productivity of the fish. Since 2013, DNR and the tribes have linked harvest quotas closely to annual population assessments.

But last year, the annual assessment found that the walleye population has remained relatively stable over the past three years, having rebounded from population lows seen from 2012 to 2016. Productivity from 2009-12 was dismal.

"We are now in a far better place than we were,'' Parsons said.

Still, there are concerns. There's been a decline in the abundance of key walleye forage fish: perch and tullibee. Moreover, the body condition or plumpness of walleyes has been less than average. DNR field crews are once again assessing those variables in September netting and electro-fishing.

A year ago, about 40% of the fish caught in the test nets were born in 2013 and are now 17 to 21 inches in length. Years of protecting that class of walleyes has bolstered spawning.

Mille Lacs fishing guide Matt Quick said he's experienced plenty of days this summer of catching more than 100 walleyes. He's been impressed by the range in sizes — from 10 inches in length to 30.

"It wouldn't hurt to take a couple fish here and there,'' he said. "It just seems ridiculous to not be able to keep a fish.''

Parsons said this year's goal on Mille Lacs was to reintroduce fall fishing. In recent years, the lake's walleye quota was spent by Labor Day. The July closure loosened things up even more than anticipated.

Eddy Lyback, owner of Lyback's Marine and a member of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, said it's nice to see the return of fall walleye fishing. But he doubts that the state will be able to recoup the unused allotment.

He supports any move toward longer-term management plans. "The shutdowns are not working for people up here,'' Lyback said.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213