An alarmingly low population estimate last year prompted the DNR and the eight Ojibwe bands with treaty rights on the lake to cut in half the maximum amount of walleyes that can be harvested — from 500,000 pounds last year to 250,000 pounds this year.
Mille Lacs Lake, one of Minnesota's most popular fishing destinations, is likely to see tight restrictions this summer to help its walleye population recover.
Officials from the Department of Natural Resources presented a series of options ranging from difficult to painful to a meeting packed with area residents and business owners Wednesday night.
Tom Jones, the DNR's treaties manager, told them anglers likely will only be able to keep a narrow size range of walleyes, perhaps only in a "slot" between 18 and 20 inches long. The current rules say anglers must throw back walleye between 17 and 28 inches long. The bag limit may drop to two.
But Jones said the DNR will probably liberalize regulations to promote fishing for smallmouth bass and northern pike, which prey on young walleyes.
Jones said the idea is to protect smaller walleyes, which are in short supply but key to a rebound.
"We want to put in a suite of regulations that will allow us to keep fishing," Jones said.
An alarmingly low population estimate last year prompted the DNR and the eight Ojibwe bands with treaty rights on the lake to cut in half the maximum amount of walleyes that can be harvested — from 500,000 pounds last year to 250,000 pounds this year. Sport anglers will get roughly 180,000 pounds, and it's up to the DNR to make sure anglers stay within that limit. Last year, sport anglers caught more than 300,000 pounds.
Fisheries managers aren't sure why the walleye population has fallen to a 40-year low. Theories include some combination of current regulations for sport anglers and tribal netters tilting the harvest pressure toward smaller fish, the explosion of zebra mussels in the lake, improved water clarity or an apparent shortage of prey fish.
DNR biologists estimate that a tight harvest slot still would result in around 200,000 pounds, well over the state's sport angler allotment. That figure includes hooking mortality — an estimate of the number of fish that die after being caught and released.
A possible ban on night fishing drew strong opposition from resort owners.
"That's probably 75 percent of our customers," said Bill Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort.
Other options could include restrictions on using live bait, possibly during June and July, when hooking mortality is highest. Another would be requiring the use of circle hooks, and banning regular hooks or jigs. Those ideas weren't popular with the stakeholders either.
"It's going to stink," Josh Bullivant, a guide at McQuoids Inn in Isle, said. "It's going to hurt us. But we're still going to be able to catch fish. It looks like it's going to be still good fishing."
Things could get especially tough if anglers exceed their limit and the DNR has to limit walleye fishing to catch and release, which Jones said would be a worst-case scenario.
Suzy Fisher Anderson, owner of Fisher's Resort, said switching to catch and release would be devastating. But if the DNR promotes catching other fish, like bass and northern pike, that could offset some of the business she's anticipating losing from walleye anglers.
The DNR will announce its walleye regulations for Mille Lacs before the season opens in May. Tribal and DNR biologists also plan to conduct a more detailed census of the fish populations this spring.