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Effort to limit walleye harvest means continued tight regulations on Mille Lacs

Mark Koivula of Duluth holds a walleye he caught last July on Mille Lacs Lake while fishing with guide Steve Fellegy of Aitkin. (2013 file / News Tribune)

Anglers fishing on Lake Mille Lacs this year will be able to catch and keep only two walleyes daily and only if those fish are between 18 and 20 inches long.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced the 2014 regulations on Tuesday, saying they are an effort to protect spawning-age fish as biologists continue to decipher what’s going wrong on the big central Minnesota lake where walleye numbers are at a 40-year low.

The daily and size regulations, the same as last year, will require anglers to release all walleyes shorter than 18 inches and longer than 20 inches, although they can keep one trophy fish 28 inches or longer as part of their daily, two-fish limit.

In addition, the DNR for the first time will ban night fishing on the lake for all but the first two days of the open-water season. All fishing will be banned on Mille Lacs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. from May 12 to Dec. 1.

The night ban previously ended in mid-June. Walleyes on the lake are considered more vulnerable at night, and the ban is one more way the state is trying to keep more walleyes in the lake.

The night ban applies to all species.

While many Minnesota lakes have special regulations, the general statewide walleye limit is six per day, with just one fish over 20 inches long. The Minnesota fishing season begins May 10.

DNR officials say the restrictive slot limit and night-fishing ban will help keep the harvest below the level biologists feel is safe — this year set at 60,000 pounds total, the lowest harvest limit ever and just a fraction of the 600,000-pound safe limit set in 2006.

The safe allotment is determined jointly by the DNR and eight Ojibwe tribes that have harvest rights under an 1837 treaty, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“We don’t want to see any further decline in the number of spawners in the lake,’’ Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, said in a telephone news conference with reporters.

In an effort to keep anglers visiting the lake and to support the lake’s tourism-based economy, the DNR is relaxing regulations for northern pike and smallmouth bass, both of which have healthy populations.

“It’s an effort to keep angler interest up for the lake’’ and to help the many businesses near the lake that depend on angling, Pereira said. “Let’s try to really bring the positive forward. … We’re seeing young northern pike levels like we’ve never seen before.”

Starting May 10, anglers will be able to keep 10 northern pike daily, of which only one may be longer than 30 inches. That’s up from the previous limit of three pike daily. Anglers also will be able to fish for northern pike for a longer period of time. The season, which previously ended in mid-February, will go to the last Sunday in March in 2015.

The DNR also is removing the ban on winter spearing for pike on Mille Lacs.

The smallmouth bass season also will be extended and limits relaxed. The bass season will start on May 10 and not end until February, and anglers can keep up to six bass daily for that entire period. Only one of those bass may be longer than 18 inches. The previous regulation allowed anglers to keep only six fish between 17 to 20 inches, with only one longer than 20 inches.

Combined, the strict walleye rules but relaxed bass and pike rules reflect the DNR’s effort to improve “the walleye fishery as quickly as possible with as little harm to the local economy as possible,” Pereira said, adding that the DNR will closely watch how the relaxed regulations affect pike and bass numbers and will revisit the regulations each year.

Linda Eno, co-owner of Twin Pines resort with her husband, Bill, for the past 20 years, said the night-fishing ban will hurt their Lake Mille Lacs business, but that the resort “will have to adjust.”

“We’ll survive. We’re very thankful for our repeat customers,” she said, adding that she appreciates the DNR’s effort to give anglers other options on the lake.

“We’ve already seen more interest in pike and bass, with launch trips, so yeah, loosening up on the pike and bass will absolutely help us,’’ Eno told the News Tribune in an interview.

Eno added that she’d like to see more big walleyes allowed to be kept by anglers, saying the 18-to-20-inch slot hasn’t worked to solve the problem. “Maybe if we took out more of the big walleyes they wouldn’t be eating the little walleyes,’’ she added.

DNR biologists cite several problems conspiring against Mille Lacs walleyes:

* The lake has not produced a strong year-class of walleyes since 2008, even though plenty of big, spawning-age fish remain in the lake. Few small walleyes are surviving to their second autumn in the lake, although it’s not clear why.

* The lake’s water clarity has doubled since the 1980s, due in part to Clean Water Act regulations but mostly to the influx of invading zebra mussels, first confirmed in the lake in 2006. Zebra mussels feed by filtering tiny plants out of the water, resulting in increased water clarity.

* Much clearer water has pushed small walleyes into deeper water where they may be more vulnerable to being eaten by predators like perch and big walleye.

* Invasive spiny water fleas are affecting zooplankton, the tiny critters that small fish eat.

* 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.

“Biologists were really struck by the magnitude of change’’ in the lake’s ecosystem over the past 30 years, Pereira said.

Of the 60,000 pounds of walleyes allowed under this year’s safe-harvest allotment, 42,900 pounds are allocated to anglers and 17,100 pounds to tribal netting and spearing. The 42,900-pound allotment also includes estimated hooking mortality — fish caught and released but which perish soon after.

If that 42,900-pound allotment is reached during the fishing season it could mean anglers would have to go to releasing all walleyes caught for the rest of the season. But DNR biologists say it’s unlikely that many pounds will be caught because of a strong year-class of perch last year, meaning lots of food for walleyes and lots of competition for anglers’ bait.

This past winter season, which ended Feb. 22, anglers harvested an estimated 470 pounds of walleyes, 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, well below the safe allotment limit.

While some Mille Lacs interests have blamed tribal spearing and netting for at least part of the walleye decline, DNR officials say that is not the case.