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Mille Lacs Lake walleyes run big, but where are the small ones?

ON MILLE LACS LAKE -- Within moments of dropping a jumbo leech to the bottom of Mille Lacs Lake on Tuesday morning, Steve Fellegy took up slack in his line and set the hook.

Steve Fellegy and nice walleye
Mille Lacs Lake fishing guide Steve Fellegy holds a 26-inch walleye taken on his boat Tuesday afternoon while fishing mud flats on the north end of the lake. Although fishing has been good on Mille Lacs, last fall's survey of walleyes was the lowest in the past 40 years. (am Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

ON MILLE LACS LAKE -- Within moments of dropping a jumbo leech to the bottom of Mille Lacs Lake on Tuesday morning, Steve Fellegy took up slack in his line and set the hook.

It's safe to say Fellegy, 59, has done that many thousands of times in his life. He started guiding on Mille Lacs when he was 11.

He brought the fish to the net and took a look. The fish was green and lean, a handsome 22-inch walleye.

"That's the average, right there," Fellegy said.

Smaller walleyes are harder to find these days on Mille Lacs, which many consider Minnesota's premier walleye lake. Four recent year classes of walleye have all but disappeared from the fishery after their hatch years, creating concern about the future of the lake's walleye fishing.

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Last fall's index of walleye abundance on Mille Lacs was the lowest in 40 years.

But fishing success on the 128,000-acre lake has been high this summer. Forage fish, especially perch, are in short supply, so the walleyes are hungry for anglers' baits. It's common to catch walleyes 20 inches or longer, Fellegy said. While the average length is good, weights are down, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists and Fellegy.

"These 22- to 25-inch fish are skinny," Fellegy said. "They're 20 to 25 percent lighter than they used to be."

We were fishing about five miles off the north shore of Mille Lacs out of the Red Door Resort, on mud flats about 25 feet deep. Duluth's Mark Koivula and I had joined Fellegy for the outing. We had waited out an hour-long thunderstorm and started fishing about 11 a.m.

Concerns over walleyes

Fellegy, like fisheries biologists and many people who live on the lake, is concerned about what's happening with the Mille Lacs walleye fishery.

"Yeah, it's a mess," Fellegy said. "The sad part is, a whole bunch of people are in denial about what the problem is."

While waiting out the thunderstorm, Fellegy had expounded on his theories about the walleye issue on Mille Lacs. He believes the problem is two-fold: gill-netting of walleyes by American Indian bands during spawning season, and DNR regulations that he claims have created an imbalance in the walleye population.

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DNR fisheries managers say they believe the problem is more complex than that, and are working to solve the lake's walleye dilemma. They say invasive species such as zebra mussels may be playing a role in the changes.

Once on the lake, though, Fellegy focused on fishing. We began picking off fish -- one here, one there, trolling leeches on Lindy-type rigs with 10-foot leaders. Fellegy is a fanatic about his presentations. For rigging, he uses ½-ounce sinkers, 6-pound-test line and tiny No. 10 hooks.

"You don't want the sinker dragging in the mud," he said. "You want it just above the mud."

Dragging a sinker in the mud spooks the fish, which move away before the leech comes by, he believes. Small, lightweight hooks allow live bait to swim more freely. The long leaders are necessary, he says, because it keeps the bait closer to the bottom than shorter leaders do.

Here and there

He mostly hovered over the fish he marked on his sonar graph, rather than trolling far in any one direction. Where he marked fish with the graph, we caught fish, but after catching one or two on a particular spot, they often moved off.

"Huh," Fellegy would say.

He couldn't figure out why we weren't finding concentrations of fish.

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When one of us caught a 15-inch walleye, Fellegy was surprised.

"That's a rare one, that small," he said.

We caught two that size among the 11 fish we boated in four hours of fishing. Most were from 20 to 23 inches, with one 26-incher in the mix.

When the 26-incher came aboard, Fellegy held it up for viewing.

"See how skinny he is?" Fellegy asked.

The fish was long and handsome but had little girth and no bulge to its belly.

None of the fish we caught fell within the 18- to 20-inch range -- the size that Mille Lacs anglers are allowed to keep in a limit of two fish. (One walleye 28 inches or longer is permitted in the two-fish limit.)

Fishing history

We fished several mud flats, actually humps of mud-topped rock that rise 8 or 10 feet above the lake bottom. Fellegy, whose parents owned Early Bird Resort on the lake when he and his brother, Joe, were kids, knows how most of the flats got their names.

"Eileen" is named for Eileen Walters, a woman who came to the family resort and caught a 26¾-inch walleye on his dad's launch. At that time, fish of that size were uncommon, Fellegy said.

"Fish House Flat" bears its name, he said, for a feat that Fellegy was involved in as a kid.

"My brother and I pushed a 4-by-6 (foot) fish house out here from shore, three miles," he said.

They just wanted to go fishing.

Fellegy guided on Mille Lacs until the 1980s, then took a break to become a professional walleye angler from 1984 to 2007. He won Professional Walleye Trail championships in 1989 and 1993.

Despite all of the issues surrounding the Mille Lacs fishery, it is still a moving experience to pull a walleye up through the clear water. The water has cleared significantly since zebra mussels were first found here in 2005.

Koivula cranked up another 20-inch walleye. When it was still 8 or 10 feet down, we could watch the fish fighting. We could see every fin-flex, every tail whip, those big eyes and the creamy spot on the bottom of its tail.

It was like watching a video, but this was live, and soon the fish would be flopping in Fellegy's net.

For a moment, it was almost possible to forget that the fish was the symbol of so much controversy.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENTFISHING
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