MILLE LACS, Minn.-Mille Lacs Lake resort and business owners and fishermen received some good news Friday as the ice fishing season approaches.
The walleye fishing will open on Friday, Dec. 1, with no bait restrictions and a limit of one walleye 20-22 inches or one longer than 28 inches.
"We're glad results of a fall population survey show Mille Lacs anglers will be able to keep some walleye during the winter walleye season," said Don Pereira, fisheries section chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in a news release. "We know this is important to resorts and businesses because the ice fishing season contributes a lot to the local economy."
The DNR has tightened fishing regulations on Mille Lacs in recent years in an effort to boost the lake's declining walleye population. Walleye fishing was catch-and-release all last summer, and was off-limits entirely for four weeks.
The DNR selected the size regulations to protect Mille Lacs' walleye spawning population, which is largely comprised of walleyes hatched in 2013 (also known as a year class). Those fish currently range from 15 to 19 inches in length and represented about 40 percent of the walleyes sampled during this fall's population survey.
Since the 2013 year class now is nearly fully mature, the DNR determined anglers could keep older and larger fish, something some anglers have been suggesting and requesting. In recent years, conservative regulations on Mille Lacs have protected the younger spawners to-be so they can replace the older spawners, which is necessary to sustain the population.
The DNR and members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee did discuss setting the large fish limit at 26 inches. But feedback suggested that keeping those fish in the lake was preferred because the possibility of catching walleye 26 to 28 inches makes Mille Lacs an attractive destination. There also was concern that a 26-inch limit could result in a higher harvest level that would count against the 2018 allocation.
Walleye restrictions have been controversial with local business owners, who depend on walleye anglers to support their resorts, guide services, restaurants and bait shops.
Members of the advisory committee, largely made up of local business owners and anglers, were generally supportive of the DNR's proposed regulations.
Most said they don't want to see a harvest cap this winter, and they don't want to see the lake closed for walleye fishing like it was last summer.
"I really just want to see this lake open," said Tony Roach, a committee member and professional guide, told MPR News. "I think it's really healthy. I was out there all summer, and the fishing was great and people were coming. I just want to see it open."
Mille Lacs fall walleye population survey, known as an "assessment," showed that the 2013 year class continues to dominate the population. The catch of walleye hatched in 2014, 2015 and 2016 was below average. Fish hatched this spring were caught in good numbers but it's uncertain if those numbers will remain as the 2017 year class progresses through its first, second and third years.
"During the past 15 years, our studies show fewer and fewer young walleye surviving to their third year," Pereira said. "Young fish not surviving has put Mille Lacs' walleye population in the unfortunate situation it is now. Whatever is causing that mortality is the root problem."
The assessment also looks at food abundance and walleye health. Perch 1-2 years old were caught in low numbers and the number of young-of-year perch was above average. The number of young-of-year tullibee caught was near average.
Perch and tullibee are the primary food source for Mille Lacs' walleye, which are showing negative effects from a lack of adequate food. That shortage may be driving the hot walleye bite anglers have experienced on Mille Lacs.
Complete winter regulation information for Mille Lacs Lake is available on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/millelacslake.