It’s a Keeper (not)! Catch-and-Release only in 2016 for Walleye on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake.

In a controversial move that could cripple summer tourism in MInnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake area, the Minnesota DNR on Monday announced that the 2016 walleye season on Mille Lacs will be catch-and-release only. In addition, new regulations will require walleye anglers on Mille Lacs to use only artificial bait when Minnesota’s 2016 fishing season opens on Sunday, May 14.

The new regulations are designed to help preserve and protect the walleye population in what is considered to be Minnesota’s premiere walleye fishery and one of the best in the country.

“A catch-and-release walleye season allows us to protect future spawners yet acknowledges the desire that fishing remain open,” said Don Pereira, fisheries chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Not allowing harvest is a difficult decision but it provides our best option.”

Last year on Mille Lacs, walleye anglers could use live bait and keep one walleye 19-21 inches long or longer than 28 inches. Walleye fishing closed in August when fishing pressure, the number of fish caught and temperatures combined to push the state over its 28,600 pound walleye limit.

The early closure of the 2015 season hit local businesses and resorts in the pocketbook, putting an early end to the summer tourism boom that brings in a large majority of their revenue. The new 2016 catch-and-release regulation could mean a slow season for those same businesses, bait shops and resorts, but in the long run, could prevent an even greater calamity: a full-scale shut-down of the walleye season.

“The possibility of closing Mille Lacs to walleye fishing is greater this year than it was last,” Pereira said. “Even with our catch-and-release approach, the risk remains considerable.”

This year’s safe walleye harvest level established by the DNR and Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission remains at 40,000 pounds, with 28,600 allocated to state anglers and 11,400 for tribal fishing. Allowing fishing beyond those limits puts the walleye population at risk and a federal court decision requires that walleye fishing be suspended.

Other changed regulations for the 2016 season on Mille Lacs include:

  • Walleye: Night closure beginning Monday, May 16, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and continuing through Dec. 1. Muskellunge anglers may fish at night but all baits, live or artificial, in possession must be at least 8 inches long.
  • Northern pike: Five fish with only one longer than 40 inches. All northern 30-40 inches long must be immediately released.
  • Bass: Four fish with only one longer than 21 inches. All fish 17-21 inches long must be immediately released.

There is one exception to the new artificial bait only regulation for walleye: As part of a comprehensive study designed to better understand and estimate hooking mortality, anglers on Mille Lacs Lake fishing launches will be allowed to use live bait, provided the launch operators agree to collect various data on fishing methods and catches.

“Anglers fish close together on launches, making it extremely difficult to safely cast artificial lures rather than dropping baited lines into the water,” Pereira said. “Since the DNR needs more data to refine its hooking mortality standards, asking launches to provide this data will allow a traditional, popular and enjoyable method of fishing on Mille Lacs to continue.”

While the opinions of anglers, guides, and business owners may differ, Pereira made it clear that although the decision to mandate catch-and-release was difficult, he believes it was the right call for the long-term preservation of the legendary walleye fishing tradition on Mille Lacs.

“These new regulations reflect the DNR’s commitment to continue providing world-class fishing at one of Minnesota’s premier vacation destinations.”

Will it work? Time will tell. For now, if you’re headed to Mille Lacs, make sure to bring plenty of lures. And although you won’t be enjoying fresh-caught shore lunch, you can still enjoy a delicious walleye dinner at one of the local restaurants or resorts. Something tells me they’ll be glad you came.

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