Usually when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources holds a public meeting they go out of their way to make sure the public shows up en masse.
But not this time.
DNR fisheries officials are asking people to consider submitting comments on changes proposed for Island Lake’s walleye regulations in writing — by mail or email — instead of attending an in-person public meeting set for Oct. 8.
Nearly all other state-sanctioned public meetings have been canceled or moved to virtual meetings, held by video online, to protect public safety during the COVID-19 outbreak. But the state statutes that allow the DNR commissioner to change state fishing regulations, to essentially change state law without legislative action, mandate that an in-person public meeting be held first. And those statutes don’t make any allowance for pandemics or substituting virtual meetings.
Required to follow COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, DNR officials say there is safe space for only 10 people in the town hall at one time, including DNR staff.
Dan Wilfond, Duluth-area large lakes specialist for the DNR who developed the walleye plan, said DNR staff will be on hand to answer questions and take comments in the Rice Lake City Hall from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 8 as scheduled. But said the “preferred alternative’’ is for people to communicate with him in writing.
The basic information behind the plan is laid out online at files.dnr.state.mn.us/areas/fisheries/duluth/island_lake-update.pdf. You can comment or ask questions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Dan Wilfond, Duluth Area Fisheries, 5351 North Shore Drive, Duluth, MN 55803.
Comments on the Island Lake walleye plan will be accepted through Oct. 26.
The Island Lake plan also will get a few minutes of prime time during statewide DNR fisheries virtual meetings set for Oct. 7 from noon to 1 p.m. and Oct. 8 from 6 to 7 p.m. The Island Lake proposal will only be a small part of those meetings that are aimed more at statewide regulation changes for bluegills.
Support seems strong
Most Island Lake anglers know the issue: The vast majority of walleyes caught are in the 10- to 13-inch range, smaller than what most anglers would consider a keeper. Fish population surveys found the same thing, with average sizes around 12 inches long, down from a 17-inch average in the 1960s.
One year ago in a public meeting, Department of Natural Resources fisheries experts asked anglers if they wanted to try something new to get bigger walleyes in Island Lake, a big, man-made reservoir about 15 miles north of Duluth created in the early 1900s. The answer was a resounding “Yes!”
Now the DNR plan is ready to go prime time and, after Oct. 26, will head to St. Paul for approval from DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen. If there’s continued support from the public, and DNR leaders in St. Paul, the new rules would take effect in March 2021.
As the News Tribune first reported in August, the DNR proposal includes a slot limit requiring anglers to release all walleyes between 15 and 20 inches. Anglers could keep one walleye over 20 inches long, pretty much a standard statewide.
But here’s the part that would be totally new to Minnesota walleye management: The DNR wants to let anglers keep up to 10 walleyes per day under 15 inches with no minimum size limit. That's an extra four fish per day more than currently allowed and four more than anywhere else in the state.
Wilfond says the 10,800-acre lake has more walleyes than it can biologically support, especially a surplus of small fish. The infertile lake has limited food for fish. And that makes walleyes in the lake grow slower than any other lake in the region. DNR surveys show catch rates are very high, but the majority of walleyes never get very big. In a sense, the walleyes in Island Lake are stunted, a phrase often used with bluegill or northern pike populations but almost never with walleyes.
John Jones, an avid walleye angler who lives on the lake and runs Island Lake Prop Repair, said he supports any DNR effort to increase the size of walleyes. While Jones said fishing pressure isn’t great on the lake, especially in winter, the 10-fish limit still might help reduce the overabundance of small fish.
“I think it’s great they (DNR) are at least trying something,’’ Jones said. “I fish a lot. That’s why I live on the lake. I love that lake. But there’s clearly something wrong with the size of the walleyes in it.”
Rob Murray, who also lives on Island Lake, said he supports the proposed changes.
“I’ve fished up there for 30 years and in my opinion it’s only gotten worse,’’ Murray said. “I think it’s pretty clear there are plenty of walleyes out there, maybe too many, they just don’t have enough food to get bigger.”
Dan Freeman, another Island Lake resident and hardcore angler, said it's not bad for kids to catch lots of small walleyes on the lake as they can now. But he's all for seeing bigger fish, too.
"I'm hopeful they can do something to increase the size and not take down the numbers too much,'' Freeman said.
Cisco introduction may come later
In addition to lack of food, Wilfond said Island Lake walleyes may be impacted by spiny water fleas. In 1990 Island Lake became the first inland lake in Minnesota confirmed with the invasive species (a Eurasian native that likely arrived in the Twin Ports in the ballast of ships) and it appears walleye growth has slowed even more since they arrived.
Spiny water fleas are one reason Wilfond also has proposed introducing coldwater cisco into the lake. Studies show cisco could thrive, especially in the coolwater deep zones of the reservoir. Cisco eat spiny water fleas. And cisco — a member of the lake herring family - also would provide very hardy, high-calorie meals for walleyes (and musky) and likely spur growth rates.
For now, Wilfond said, the cisco introduction faces some hurdles. Introducing new species to lakes on purpose has been rare in Minnesota in recent decades. And because Island Lake is linked to Lake Superior via the Cloquet and St. Louis rivers, DNR officials will want to make sure any introduced fish are not just disease-free but also won’t interfere genetically with native Lake Superior fish.
The cisco introduction plan is outside the regulation change now on the board.
“The cisco introduction is still being considered, but we are not directly seeking comment on that at this time,’’ Wilfond told the News Tribune. “The focus of this campaign is to seek the public’s input related to the angling regulation change.”
For his part, Jones said he’s all for the cisco idea.
“The big, best walleye lakes in Minnesota all have cisco in them,’’ Jones noted. “Let’s give it a try.”
Murray and Freeman agreed.
“We all know that forage base is the main issue here,’’ Murray said. “Why not put something in there so the walleyes have some food to get big on?”
"With ciscoes in a lake you get bigger fish, walleye and musky,'' Freeman said. "I think the musky fishery in the lake needs some help, too."