The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Wednesday that anglers on Mille Lacs Lake, known as the “Walleye Capital of the World,” will be able to keep only one walleye 19- to 21-inches long or one over 28 inches when the fishing season opens Saturday, May 9.
The DNR says it is taking the action because the walleye numbers are at a 40-year low. Last year, Mille Lacs anglers could keep two walleye 18- to 20-inches long or one longer than 28 inches.
The 128,000-plus acre lake, the second largest in Minnesota, is about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities near Garrison. It brings in many anglers from the Midwest each summer to fish the ( former?) “walleye factory,” for “marble eyes.”
And the DNR also announced it will close night fishing beginning the Monday after the opener with two exceptions. Beginning Monday, June 8, muskie anglers may fish at night with artificial lures longer than 8 inches or sucker minnows longer than 8 inches. Also, bow fishing for rough fish only will be allowed at night beginning June 8 provided no angling equipment is in a boat.
The DNR says the restrictive walleye regulations are necessary to keep walleye harvest within the lake’s established safe harvest level.
“The new regulations reflect our commitment to improve the walleye fishery as quickly as possible and stay within the state’s 1837 Treaty safe harvest allocation yet continue to provide walleye angling opportunities,” said Don Pereira, fisheries chief for the DNR.
The 2015 regulations for Mille Lacs Lake are as follows:
- Walleye – Limit of one and the fish must be 19- to 21-inches long or longer than 28 inches. Night closure from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. May 11 to December 1.
- Northern pike – Limit of 10. One fish may be longer than 30 inches only if two fish shorter than 30 inches are caught on the same trip and in possession.
- Bass – Limit of six smallmouth and largemouth bass in combination. Only one smallmouth bass may be longer than 18 inches.
Mille Lacs’ 2015 walleye safe harvest level was reduced from 60,000 to 40,000 pounds in 2015 so more fish could potentially survive and spawn to improve the walleye population. State anglers can harvest up to 28,600 pounds of walleye. The eight Chippewa bands with 1837 Treaty harvest rights can harvest up to 11,400 pounds of walleye, according to the DNR.
“This set of regulations is designed to minimize the likelihood that a catch-and-release only walleye fishing regulation would be needed later in the season to stay within the state’s safe harvest allocation,” Pereira said.
The DNR noted like last year, anglers may keep up to 10 northern pike. A change – suggested and supported by the Mille Lacs input group – this year allows one of those fish to be longer than 30 inches only if an angler has first caught at least two northerns shorter than 30 inches on the same trip and has them in immediate possession. Angling season for northern pike runs from May 9 through March 27, 2016.
“There was too much pressure on large northern pike last year when anglers and spearers could harvest one fish longer than 30 inches without restriction,” Pereira said. “So this year we’re experimenting with an ‘earn-a-trophy’ concept that requires anglers to harvest more abundant smaller fish before they can take home a big fish.”
Mille Lacs’ relaxed smallmouth bass regulations remain in effect. The smallmouth bass season begins May 9 and allows anglers to harvest smallmouth bass from the walleye opener until the last Sunday in February 2016. Anglers may keep six smallmouth and largemouth bass in combination, but only one smallmouth bass may be longer than 18 inches.
Pereira said the suite of regulations reflects significant fish population changes at Mille Lacs. Northern pike numbers are at record highs. The smallmouth bass population has been increasing since the 1990s. Tullibee and perch populations, both important forage species, are relatively low.
The DNR noted fish populations likely are being influenced by many factors including a management approach that focused too much walleye harvest on too narrow a size range of fish. An adequate number of spawners remain in the lake and sufficient walleye continue to hatch each year. The problem is that since 2008, not enough young walleye are surviving to maturity and replenishing the population.
“We’re encouraged by walleye hatched in 2013,” Pereira said. “That year class shows strong signs that more of those fish are surviving and will mature.”
The DNR added other factors contributing to the changing fishery on Mille Lacs and possibly influencing the survival of young walleye include clearer water that may limit suitable habitat and increase vulnerability to predation, longer growing seasons related to climate change that may favor other species, and the indirect impacts of a variety of invasive species in the lake, including zebra mussels, spiny water fleas and Eurasian water milfoil.
Midwest Guide Outdoors Readers: What’s your take on the Minnesota DNR’s action? For all: Has your state DNR done a good job with fish management?