Stability sought in Mille Lacs regs

Aitkin, Minn. – Fishing guides, business owners, and the rest of
those collectively known as the Mille Lacs Lake Fisheries Input
Group were presented last week with a couple of options for this
year’s fishing regs.

And while opinions were mixed about what the regulation should
be, one theme was consistent: the lake needs regs that are not only
in place for the entire season, but perhaps for a number of
seasons.

“Through all the years (18 seasons in business on Mille Lacs),
it’s really been the regulations that people have been intimidated
by,” said Bill Lundeen, owner of Lundeen’s Tackle Castle near
Onamia. “Will (a consistent regulation) bring more people (to the
lake)? It may.”

Prior to the Feb. 21 meeting, DNR staff – challenged by poor
netting results this fall, and a reduction in allowable harvest –
had considered two possible protected size slots for walleyes – 20
to 28 inches, and 17 to 28 inches. What anglers may see when the
fishing opener rolls around is an 18- to 28-inch slot, according to
Pat Schmalz, treaty biologist for the Minnesota DNR. The bag limit
would remain at four fish, and one over 28 inches would be allowed
in possession.

“We need to do some modeling yet (determining the potential
harvest associated with such a regulation), to determine our best
long-term option,” he said.

Following fall netting and meetings with Mille Lacs’
co-managers,the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the state’s allowable
harvest was determined to be 140,000 pounds of walleyes less than
last year, falling from about 449,000 pounds to 307,500 pounds.

Last year, a hot walleye bite and rapid angler harvest
necessitated a mid-summer change in the regulations; a protected
20- to 28-inch slot became a 14- to 18-inch harvest slot. It wasn’t
a popular move.

“Everybody was really discouraged about having to change the
regulation mid-season last year,” Schmalz said.

Officials believe an 18- to 28-inch protected slot likely would
ensure the regs wouldn’t change this year. But they’re also looking
for a regulation that might work well into the future.

“We’re trying to develop an alternative management strategy for
the lake, and one that would be non-yearly,” DNR Commissioner Mark
Holsten said this week. “We want a consistent regulation, and we
want to stay within the safe harvest level.”

Holsten said Mille Lacs regulations have changed seven times in
the past 10 years – and that doesn’t include any mid-season changes
that may have occurred.

He said Mille Lacs management is different than that of any
other lake in the state.

Other large lakes – Winnibigoshish and Leech, for example – have
walleye regulations in place that would be similar to an 18- to
28-inch protected slot for Mille Lacs, thus anglers wouldn’t use
that as a reason to choose one lake over another.

So, how long is “long term?”

“We’d like a little longer-term than five years,” Holsten
said.

But annually determined harvest levels, coupled with how greatly
the walleye bite might vary from one year to the next and other
factors, make long-term planning difficult.

“Right now, we’re chasing the safe harvest level and
anticipating what the bite might be,” he said, alluding to the fact
that management has been a matter of harvesting as close to the
annual allotment as possible.

Mille Lacs business owners like Lundeen believe a stable
regulation is a good thing, but want the door left open – just a
bit.

“Why would we have to lock into it for 10 years?” he asked. “If
you get into it (a long-term reg) four years and it sucks, you’re
stuck with it for another six years.”

Holsten said that contrary to the beliefs of some anglers –
beliefs based on poor fall netting results – the walleye population
in Mille Lacs hasn’t “crashed.”

“There are a lot of fish in that lake,” he said. “Our level of
confidence in our fall netting isn’t as high as it normally is
(because of environmental conditions during netting surveys in
2007).”

Holsten said he expects the DNR to have a proposal regarding
2008 regulations for Mille Lacs within a couple weeks.

The Mille Lacs Band, along with six other bands from Minnesota
and Wisconsin, will be allowed a harvest of 122,000 pounds of
walleyes, up from 100,000 last year. Unlike the year-long angler
harvest that’s dependent on the species’ willingness to bite,
tribal harvest is mostly concentrated into a short window of
opportunity following ice-out, and fish are harvested via net.

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