ST. PAUL — Sport anglers who fish on Mille Lacs Lake will be allowed to keep only two walleyes this season and only if they fall within a narrow size range, fisheries officials announced Tuesday as they seek to stem a crash in the walleye population in one of Minnesota's premier fishing lakes.
But the Department of Natural Resources also liberalized regulations for taking northern pike and smallmouth bass from the big lake, and decided against a ban on nighttime fishing that was unpopular with resort and other stakeholders.
"We have a serious problem on Mille Lacs," DNR fisheries chief Dirk Peterson told reporters on a conference call. "We've got low walleye populations out there. But the other side of the coin is you can still expect good fishing opportunities for walleye this summer and the regulations will help ensure that."
The new regulations are aimed at protecting the lake's smaller walleyes, he said, which are critical to a recovery. While natural reproduction has been good and the lake still contains large numbers of larger walleyes, he said too many newly hatched walleyes aren't growing up to become big fish.
"We hope to see some turning of the corner on the walleye situation in the next two to three years," Peterson said.
Under the new regulations, Mille Lacs sport anglers will be able to keep walleyes only between 18 and 20 inches long, or longer than 28 inches. All others must be released immediately. The daily bag and possession limit is two, with only one longer than 28 inches. Last season all walleye from 17 to 28 inches had to be released, and the limit was four, a total that proved difficult for anglers to reach because the lake held few walleyes smaller than 17 inches.
The DNR is hoping the looser regulations for northern pike and smallmouth bass on Mille Lacs give anglers other opportunities. Fewer of those fish would also mean young walleyes would have less competition for food and fewer predators.
The lake's protected slot for northerns will be narrowed to 33 to 40 inches, meaning fish within that range must be released immediately, with only one northern longer than 40 inches allowed. Last year's slot was 27 to 40 inches. The limit remains three. But the smallmouth bass limit has been raised from one to six. The new protected slot is 17 to 20 inches, with only one longer than 20 inches allowed. Last year all smallmouths under 21 inches had to be released.
DNR officials and the eight Ojibwe Indian bands with treaty rights on the lake agreed in January to cut the maximum allowable walleye kill to 250,000 pounds, down from 500,000 pounds last year, after a netting survey last fall indicated the walleye population had fallen to a 40-year low. The quota was cut in half for both sport anglers and tribal members. Hook-and-line anglers will be allocated 178,750 pounds, while the tribes can net up to 72,250 pounds.
The bands' new regulations are aimed at encouraging their members to shift toward spearing the lake's more abundant larger walleyes and away from netting medium-sized walleyes, said Charlie Rasmussen, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents the bands.
The tribes have typically taken the vast majority of their walleye share through netting, and netting tribal regulations won't change, Rasmussen said, but size limits for spearing have been raised. Band members will also be allowed to take 25,000 pounds of northerns, compared with 15,000 pounds last year, he said.
"It's up to tribal members to use the fishing tools of their choice," Rasmussen said. "Most tribal members are well aware of the situation. We will adjust the harvest accordingly."
Linda Eno, co-owner of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison, said she was grateful the DNR decided not to impose a night fishing ban because night fishing traditionally has been an important source of revenue for resorts, bait shops and other businesses near the lake. She said her family's business has survived 2-inch slot limits before, though others have not.
But Eno had harsh words for tribal netters and the DNR, saying she holds them "directly responsible for this lake being so far out of balance."
The DNR and the bands plan to conduct more intensive studies this year on how the lake's fish populations are faring. Rich Bruesewitz, the DNR's area fisheries supervisor, said they don't know why survival of smaller walleyes has been so low. They suspect it's a combination of predation and competition for food. They also suspect there could be some effects from invasive species such as zebra mussels, spiny water fleas and Eurasian watermilfoil.