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Walleye regulations cause Mille Lacs frustration

Mille Lacs Lake fishing guide Steve Fellegy holds a 26-inch walleye taken in July 2013 while fishing mud flats at the north end of the lake. Although fishing was good that day on Mille Lacs, a fall 2012 survey of walleyes was the lowest in the past 40 years, and a tight slot limit and lower safe-harvest level are likely this year. (File / News Tribune)

Bill Eno says he’s been selling fun at Twin Pines Resort on Mille Lacs Lake for the past 19 years. Anglers have been coming to the resort he owns near Garrison, Minn., to catch the storied lake’s walleyes.

But lately, most of the news about the once-prolific walleye lake south of Aitkin isn’t fun to read. The lake’s walleye population has declined dramatically, and no strong younger year-classes are coming up to help it recover.

That news isn’t good for business, says Eno, who is president of a group called Save Mille Lacs Sportfishing.

“The negative press from the DNR (the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) that gets spun into newspapers is probably the most devastating thing,” Eno says.

Fishing guide Bob Carlson of Mille Lacs Guide Service at Isle, Minn., has just one word for the mood of people who make their living on the big lake.

“It’s awful,” he said. “It’s awful.”

DNR officials are expected to announce this year’s fishing regulations for Mille Lacs any day. The DNR has said anglers probably will see walleye regulations on Mille Lacs much like last year’s — a tight harvest slot from 18 to 20 inches, with a two-fish limit. Under that slot limit, anglers would have to throw back all walleyes shorter than 18 inches and longer than 20 inches, with the exception that one walleye over 28 inches could be kept.

As anglers wait to see what kind of walleye regulations the DNR will put in place on Mille Lacs this year, the problems that plague the lake’s walleye fishery continue to reverberate across Minnesota.

Already, walleye safe-harvest levels have been slashed to an all-time low this year, from as high as 600,000 pounds in 2006 to 60,000 pounds this year. That allotment is determined jointly by the DNR and eight Ojibwe tribes that have harvest rights under an 1837 treaty. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is one of those bands.

DNR biologists cite a litany of issues affecting the Mille Lacs walleye population:

  • Few walleyes are surviving to their second autumn in the lake for reasons not clearly understood.
  • The lake has not produced a strong year-class of walleyes since 2008 despite ample spawning stock.
  • The lake’s water clarity has doubled since the 1980s, due in part to the Clean Water Act and also to the presence of zebra mussels, first found in 2006.
  • Improved water clarity has been linked to the movement of young-of-the-year walleyes off-shore at smaller sizes and also might have benefited sight-feeding fish that prey on walleyes and perch.
  • Mille Lacs’ smallmouth bass and northern pike populations are flourishing. In 2013, the northern pike population increased to the highest level ever observed, and the 2013 smallmouth bass population was the second-highest ever recorded.

Trying to solve the Mille Lacs walleye issue with so many variables in play is vexing to biologists.

“It’s one of the most confounded fisheries problems I’ve worked on,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief.

Walleye allotments

Of the 60,000 pounds of walleyes allowed under this year’s safe-harvest allotment, 42,900 pounds are allocated to state anglers and 17,100 pounds to tribal netting or spearing. The 42,900-pound allotment also includes estimated hooking mortality.

If that allotment is reached, presumably state anglers would have to go to catch-and-release fishing for all walleyes. DNR biologists project the 42,900-pound limit will not be reached this year because of a strong year-class of perch last year, said Eric Jensen, DNR large-lake specialist at Aitkin. When walleyes have more forage, they’re less likely to take anglers’ baits.

This winter, anglers harvested just 470 pounds of walleyes, Jensen said, down from 18,000 pounds the winter before. The winter harvest often foretells the summer walleye harvest. DNR officials expect anglers to harvest about 35,000 pounds of walleyes this summer, Jensen said, well below the state allotment.

Still, the DNR is looking at other ways of holding summer harvest down, such as extending the night ban on walleye fishing that typically ends in early June.

Tribal netting blamed

Carlson and many others on the lake say they believe the root of the walleye problem is tribal netting during the spawning season.

 “Without any doubt or question, tribal harvest, in any form, including gill nets, spears or hook-and-line should never be allowed to take place while the walleyes are most vulnerable, while in the process of spawning and ensuring the future of the walleye population,” says a statement on the Save Mille Lacs Sportfishing website.

But tribal netting isn’t the problem with the Mille Lacs walleye population, the DNR’s Pereira said.

“It’s not a matter of when you kill a fish. It’s a matter of how many you kill in a given year,” he said.

He cited three facts that refute the tribal netting theory.

“Female spawners are still abundant,” Pereira said. “They’re comparable in number to other lakes like Red Lake.

“Most of the spawning on Mille Lacs is on shore in that ice-scoured zone that’s free of zebra mussels. There’s abundant spawning habitat.

“Electrofishing assessments indicate that young-of-the-year fish in that first summer are plenty abundant. If there was excessive harvest, we wouldn’t be seeing these things.”

Brian Borkholder, fisheries biologist with the Fond du Lac Band, said biologists are working to learn why so many baby walleyes on Mille Lacs don’t make it to their second fall.

“We’re trying to figure out why they are not surviving,” Borkholder said. “If we can get a handle on young-of-the-year walleye survival, we may be able to gain insights as to what we can do as managers to fix it, if that’s even feasible.”

Eno says the DNR can’t manage Mille Lacs effectively because the agency is restricted by having to co-manage the lake with tribal authorities.

“They have to manage this lake politically and not biologically,” Eno says.

Economic effects

Already, resorts, guides, fishing launches and other businesses are feeling the pinch from Mille Lacs’ walleye issues. Carlson guides for the Red Door Resort near Aitkin.

“At Red Door Resort, we’ve had some cancellations,” Carlson said. “When we ask why, they say, ‘Because of the fishing.’ I think resorts in general are struggling.”

Pereira and other DNR officials recognize the economic impact of the walleye decline.

“We should be rightfully concerned about the economic hardship that’s happening,” Pereira said. “We want to really encourage people to partake of the pike fishery. Pike are good to eat. The same with smallmouth bass, too.”

Eno says he is suggesting just that to his guests.

“We still want people to come up here,” Eno said. “I hope they (DNR officials) take the restrictions off the smallmouth so they can have some fish to eat. Part of our heritage is to go fishing, catch some fish and eat them. Smallmouth bass and northern pike are very good to eat.”

Last year, the smallmouth bass limit on Mille Lacs was six, with a protected slot of 17 to 20 inches and one bass allowed over 20 inches.

Whether Mille Lacs anglers are willing to consider other species remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, nobody expects the Mille Lacs walleye issue to be solved soon.

“It’s going to take a number of years to turn it around,” Carlson said.