Mille Lacs fall survey nets filled with some bad news
Aitkin, Minn. — The biggest question on the minds of fishermen and Lake Mille Lacs business interests is, how will the latest lake assessment findings affect fishing regulations on the popular and controversial central-Minnesota lake next spring?
DNR fisheries managers, meanwhile, are wondering why the fall gill-net catch of walleyes in the 132,000-acre lake dropped this year to the lowest catch rate in four decades.
The findings were revealed this week in a DNR letter to members of the Mille Lacs Input Group, those interests with whom the DNR shares lake information used to set annual fish limits on the lake, which is co-managed with 1837 Treaty Indian bands.
According to the letter, penned by Rick Bruesewitz, Aitkin-area DNR Fisheries supervisor, “We were disappointed to find the overall abundance of walleye, as measured by gill nets, had dropped to 4.8 fish per net compared to 9.7 fish per net last year.
“This is lower than we expected to see in the nets and is the lowest catch rate since 1972. Even the offshore nets were lower (9.8 per net), which is where the highest catches typically are recorded,” Bruesewitz wrote. Further, “We also observed that the walleye were in poorer condition that what is typically seen, especially for larger fish.”
Contacted earlier this week, Bruesewitz said he and other biologists expected the catch would be lower this year because of a weak 2009 walleye year-class.
“We knew it would drop somewhat,” he said. “We didn’t expect it to drop so much.”
Each year for more than a decade, state anglers have shared the allowed “safe harvest level” of walleyes with the Mille Lacs Band, as well as seven others in the ceded territory. This year, Bruesewitz said, the combined entities killed about 400,000 pounds of walleyes, 80 percent of the allowed 500,000 pounds. The tribes’ take was about 80,000 pounds. The state harvest included about 163,000 pounds of fish, and 126,000 pounds of hooking mortality – an estimate of the amount of fish that were caught, released, and later perished.
Bruesewitz said it’s too early to speculate on how the fall assessment information will affect regulations for the next fishing season. The assessment is one part of the formula the department and bands use to determine the safe harvest level, prior to the bands announcing the amount of the walleye harvest they want.
The findings could complicate a couple matters in play for the lake.
For several years, the DNR has attempted to offer a consistent regulation, to benefit those who fish the lake, and those businesses dependent on lake use. That consistency largely was found with a protected 18- to 28-inch slot and four-fish limit (one over 28 inches allowed in possession).
Some local business owners wonder if that consistency is now in question. Linda Eno, of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison, said she doubts the reliability of the department’s information. “From the beginning, the process has been flawed,” Eno said.
She said test nets set further from shore, the so-called offshore nets, whose catches typically are somewhat higher than conventional nets set closer to shore. This year, those off-shore nets produced about 10 walleyes per lift. Eno said state officials have told her those nets haven’t been used long enough to provide reliable data.
Eno’s husband Bill said another long-visible and debated matter needs to be addressed: tribal gill-netting in the springtime.
“It’s a conservation issue, and gill-netting during the spawn definitely has had effects on the balance of the lake,” Bill Eno said.
The fall assessment results come just months after the DNR addressed concerns in a tribal five-year plan for its fish harvest from Mille Lacs, which, in part suggested tribes could raise their harvest – at least the amount claimed – to about 169,000 pounds. The past couple years, tribal allocation has been 142,500 pounds of walleyes.
In a letter to the bands regarding the five-year plan, it raised concerns regarding the fact the bands more often than not have been far below their allocation of walleyes, and the fact that might “reduce the effectiveness of the state’s management and increase the chance of state overharvest.”
The letter also points out that spring tribal gill nets might be reducing the number of smaller male walleyes in the lake, a phenomenon that eventually could result in an overall population decline. To a degree, state officials said, protective slots also could be skewing the population.
In its letter this week to Mille Lacs stakeholders, the DNR says other things, too, could be causes for the plunge in the walleye catch rate this fall.
Mille Lacs is a complex lake, Bruesewitz wrote. “Currently adding to the complexity are invasive species, changes in bass and panfish populations, improved water clarity, and other factors that may influence our understanding of the lake’s fish community.
“All of these concerns will be factored in as we combine all sources of information about the lake to determine the next safe harvest level and management alternatives,” he wrote.
Bruesewitz said this year’s walleye class looks strong, though the 2011 class appears to be lacking.
What’s to blame for the skinny nature of this year’s larger fish? Bruesewitz said perch numbers (forage) were down slightly, but more significant was the lack of smaller-size perch more easily consumed by walleyes.
To add to the vault of information regarding Mille Lacs’ walleyes, Bruesewitz announced the DNR and tribal officials next spring will conduct a mark and recapture study on the lake. The tagging study, to estimate the walleye population in the lake, likely won’t affect regulations when the fishing season opens next May.
In the more immediate future, Bruesewitz said department officials may meet with lake interests to further share test data in December, prior to a meeting with tribal officials in January. It’s usually in February or March that the DNR meets with the lake input group to nail down fishing regulations.
By then, Bruesewitz hopes to have better analyzed the information that’s seemingly constantly being gathered in one form or another from the lake.
“It’s a large mystery,” he said of the drop in walleye catch rates. “It’s not a simple question. We have invasives, and the habitat is changing out there. There are a lot of things going on.”