As predicted, anglers on Mille Lacs Lake will see tightened walleye regulations this summer in an effort to keep the walleye catch within prescribed safe-harvest levels.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Wednesday that Mille Lacs Lake anglers will be able to keep one walleye from 19 to 21 inches long or one over 28 inches long when fishing opens on May 9. In addition, an extended night-fishing closure will again be in effect beginning the Monday after the opener, DNR officials said.
“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,” Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, said in a statement.
The 2015 regulations for Mille Lacs Lake are:
Walleye – Limit of one and the fish must be between 19 and 21 inches long or longer than 28 inches. A night-fishing closure, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., will be in effect from May 11 to Dec. 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’ walleye safe harvest level was reduced from 60,000 to 40,000 pounds in 2015 so more fish 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.
Last year, Mille Lacs anglers could keep two walleyes 18 to 20 inches long or one longer than 28 inches.
“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.
Like last year, anglers may keep up to 10 northern pike. A change — suggested and supported by the Mille Lacs Lake Fishery 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 through 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.
Muskie, bowfishing exceptions
There will be two exceptions to the night-fishing ban this year for muskellunge and bow fishing. Beginning June 8, muskellunge anglers may fish at night with artificial lures longer than 8 inches or sucker minnows longer than 8 inches. Bow fishing for rough fish only will be allowed at night beginning June 8 provided no angling equipment is in a boat.
“Night muskie fishing and bow fishing for rough fish are popular on Mille Lacs,” Pereira said. “Last year, all boats had to be off the water at night. This year, we’ve listened to stakeholders and adjusted the regulations to accommodate night fishing methods that are expected to have no impact on the walleye we’re trying to protect.”
Walleye numbers on Mille Lacs are at a 40-year low. 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.
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, DNR officials say. An adequate number of spawners remain in the lake, and sufficient walleye continue to hatch each year, fisheries officials say. 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.”
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 watermilfoil.