ON MILLE LACS LAKE — Kevin Westerlund was piloting the 18-foot Alumacraft out to one of this monster lake’s famous mud flats, checking the giant GPS screen on occasion.
But he probably didn’t need the electronic map at all.
“I remember when the only depth finder we had was an anchor on a rope,’’ Westerlund said.
Somehow, back in the day, he and his brothers and buddies managed to find the best spots, dead-reckoning from distant landmarks on shore with no electronics. He still remembers all the mud flat and rock pile names, and locations, by heart.
“We had an old cedar-strip boat and a 9.9 Johnson and we’d go out and catch fish,” he said as he throttled-up the 150-horsepower Mercury.
Yet despite all the talk of the “good old days,’’ Westerlund said fishing on the lake has been as good or better in recent years, especially this summer, compared to when he grew up on the shores of Mille Lacs in the 1970s.
“We’re definitely catching more big fish now, no doubt. If we caught a limit of 14-inchers back then, we’d be happy,’’ said Westerlund, of Duluth. ”Now we’re having days when we catch multiple fish over 30 inches.”
In May and June walleye fishing on Mille Lacs was phenomenal by any standards. Westerlund, a retired Duluth postal carrier, makes the 90-minute trip back home to Malmo as often as he can. Earlier this week he invited myself and his buddy, Rick Crowell of Duluth.
“He was my mailman,’’ Crowell said of how the two met. Somehow, between handing off letters, they must have talked fishing. Now they are frequent fishing partners, with Crowell supplying the boat on this trip.
Purple plugs prevail
At first it seemed we had picked the only bad day Mille Lacs has seen in years. Winds that were forecast to be 5-10 mph ended up being more like 15 gusting to 20, out of the northwest, and our original plan of fishing on the east shore was being rocked by three-foot waves. We didn’t catch a single fish in two hours dragging leeches on 9-foot Lindy Rigs — I was simply unable to feel the soft bite of a walleye with the boat rocking in the whitecaps.
But we formed a new plan, headed back to Fisher’s Resort — we were already soaked from the spray — put the boat back on the trailer and headed to the north shore of the lake where we re-launched, out of the wind.
It was well past noon when we finally found the right place and the right presentation — lead-core line and crankbaits down deep — and the walleyes started to bite. And bite. And bite.
A Berkley Flicker Shad was the top lure by far, but it seemed any plug with purple on it was doing well. “Purple has always been good down here … I learned that last from an old timer I was talking to out on one of the flats,’’ Westerlund said.
Westerlund said he learned the lake from some of the old-time guides back in the 70s. As a teenager he worked at the now-defunct Malmo Bay Resort and Super Club, busing tables at night and selling bait, launching boats and cleaning fish during the day.
“I’d clean fish for the old guides and they’d tell me where the fish were,’’ Westerlund recalled.
For several hours Crowell and Westerlund took turns netting walleyes for each other, and by about 5:30 we decided we'd had enough fun. We had boated more than two dozen walleyes, all between 15 and 25 inches, and lost a chunky 28-incher when it wiggled out of the net boatside.
“A lot of these would be perfect eaters on any other lake,’’ Westerlund said as he set another 17-inch walleye back in the lake.
But not on Mille Lacs.
Despite all the walleyes we caught, there wasn't a single one in the livewell. That’s because Mille Lacs Lake again this summer is catch-and-release-only for walleyes. In fact, the big lake was closed entirely to walleye fishing in July when warm water temperatures would have threatened the survival of even released fish. (It’s estimated an average of 10% of released fish die after being set back in the water, but mortality rates climb as water temperatures warm into the upper 70s and 80s.)
A changing fishery
The no-keep precautions are part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources effort to reduce the state’s share of walleyes harvested from the lake which has seen poor walleye reproduction in most years for the past decade or more. There are lots of big walleyes, and they are laying lots of eggs each spring. But those little walleyes from most years aren’t surviving long enough to grow to a catchable size.
The estimated population of Mille Lacs walleyes was as high as 1.1 million (14 inches or longer) in 2002 but crashed to just 249,000 in 2014 after multiple bad reproduction years, called year classes. A good year class from 2013 sent that number back up to about 730,000 by 2018. Year classes since then have been mixed.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld tribal treaty rights, Mille Lacs Lake management is jointly shared by state DNR and tribal natural resource officials from eight Chippewa bands. Each year they negotiate what they believe is a “safe’’ harvest out of the big lake’s walleye stock to satisfy both tribal netting and spearing and state-regulated anglers. This year the state angling harvest is capped at 87,800 pounds of walleye and the tribal total is 62,200 pounds, for a total of 150,000 pounds of walleye during the 2019-2020 ice fishing season and 2020 open-water fishing season. (July's no-walleye fishing rule was imposed after anglers took an unusually high number of walleyes over the winter season.)
That's the same poundage as last year, when tribal officials said they took 45,651 pounds of their allowable 62,200 pounds of walleye. State anglers used all of their 87,800 pounds and were subject to a total shutdown of walleye fishing late last summer.
Clearer water a problem for walleyes
A published study released in February found that walleyes in several northern Minnesota lakes infested by zebra mussels and spiny water fleas are growing at a slower rate than they did before the infestations, including Mille Lacs, where water clarity has skyrocketed in recent decades.
Researchers used 35 years of DNR fish data and found that walleyes in lakes infested with zebra mussels or spiny water fleas (Mille Lacs has both) were 12% to 14% smaller after their first summer than before the lakes were infested.
In 2019, a study by the University of Minnesota found that, because walleyes like dark water, the amount of usable walleye habitat in Mille Lacs Lake has declined dramatically in recent decades. That’s thanks to both better septic and sewer systems removing pollutants like phosphorus, and also the filtering power of millions of zebra mussels.
That study concluded that the now years-long decline in walleyes in the big lake is being spurred by that reduction of suitable, dark-water habitat. Much of the lake is now too light, too bright, for walleyes to thrive, said Gretchen Hansen, University of Minnesota assistant professor. Walleyes thrive in darker water because of their low-light vision that allows them to outcompete other predator species for food.
Mille Lacs water clarity was around 6 feet from the 1930s, the earliest records, into the 1980s. Now, it's doubled to 12 feet. Mille Lacs also is getting warmer each summer, with much of the lake’s water warmer than optimal temperatures for walleyes during the heat of summer.
“As the water has gotten clearer in Mille Lacs, the area of the lake with suitable walleye habitat has gotten smaller,” said Hansen, assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the university, when the study was released. “Because Mille Lacs is fairly shallow and uniform in depth, the walleye cannot retreat to deeper water as they can in some clear lakes and the lake can support fewer walleye. Therefore, harvest has to (be reduced) to avoid over-exploiting walleye under new habitat conditions.”
It’s still unclear exactly how the clear water is impacting walleye reproduction. It may be sending younger walleyes deeper, to darker water, where they are more vulnerable to being eaten by big fish. (A 2014 study found the biggest predator of small walleye was big walleye.)
“We don't know what they are doing differently now than when the lake was darker,’’ Hansen said at the time.
In addition to decreasing habitat and zebra mussels, Mille Lacs walleyes also have faced invasions of Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny water fleas as well as a changing zooplankton community and fewer tullibe, a favorite walleye food.
Too much fishing pressure
Tom Heinrich, lead Mille Lacs fisheries manager for the DNR, said that, at the incredible rate sport anglers are catching fish this summer, they would have fished the lake out of many adult walleyes even without any tribal harvest.
While a biologically safe harvest is about 150,000 pounds per year, anglers this year had caught and released nearly 10 times that amount — an estimated 1.2 million pounds of walleye according to angler surveys — just through July, Heinrich said. If those fish had been kept it would have devastated the walleye population for years.
On average, a good Minnesota walleye lake catch rate is about .25 fish per hour, per person. This summer on Mille Lacs, anglers were catching more than .80 walleyes per hour at times. Heinrich said the only thing allowing for continued great fishing is that walleyes are being caught and released, or recycled, over and over.
It’s that massive fishing pressure, with the lake located just two hours north of the Twin Cities, that caused Mille Lacs' famous boom-and-bust cycles for decades even before any water clarity issues or tribal harvest, Heinrich noted.
“You had the famous Dead Sea years. Then the years of the quarter-pounder (small walleyes). And then those fantastic years,” he said. “But the fantastic years took so many big fish out, in one season, it depleted the’’ walleye breeding stock. Then it was back to Dead Sea.
Heinrich said the days of six-walleye daily limits will never return to Mille Lacs and that each new season will bring a management struggle.
“I can’t see four fish ever again, or even two. Maybe one walleye (per angler per day) year-round would be reachable. But even that might be overly optimistic,’’ he said. “If we would have allowed one fish (to be kept) this summer, with that much fishing pressure, it would have been a disaster.”
For his part Westerlund acknowledges clearer water is an issue, and he said most Mille Lacs anglers accept the tribal rights to spear and net fish. But after watching so many small resorts, bait shops and taverns close around the big lake in the decades since he grew up here, he just wishes netting might be reduced to allow sport anglers to keep some fish and help boost local tourism.
“This is a fantastic walleye lake, you can see that every time you come out here,’’ he said. “I just wish people could keep a few for a meal.”
About Mille Lacs Lake
- The 132,516 acre-lake covers 207 square miles and is the second largest lake entirely within Minnesota, after Red Lake.
- Malmo, on the northeast corner of the lake, is an easy 90-minute drive from the Twin Ports. Take I-35 south to Willow River and then head west on Carlton County Highway 41 / Aitkin County Highway 2.
- While best known for its walleye fishing, Mille Lacs also is home to world-class musky and smallmouth bass fishing as well as some big northern pike.
- It’s expected the catch-and-release walleye season will continue through autumn unless catch rates climb dramatically and fishing is closed early. Regulations for the 2020-21 ice fishing season will be set in October but are expected to be similar to last winter with anglers allowed to keep one walleye daily between 21-23 inches long.
For more information go to dnr.state.mn.us/areas/fisheries/millelacs/.