Aitkin, Minn. – It’s unlikely state-licenses anglers will catch
many more walleyes before the Lake Mille Lacs “fish year” ends in
December. It’s therefore likely this past spring and summer season
will rank down there with some of the least-memorable recent
fishing seasons on the big lake in central Minnesota – years like
2003 and 2004 when, like this year, less than 100,000 pounds of
walleyes were harvested.
Further, for those of short memory, this year’s fishing success
seems a far cry from last year’s, when the total estimated harvest
was 336,000 pounds, plus an estimated 127,000 pounds of hooking
mortality (for a total state-angler kill of 463,000 pounds of
According to Tom Jones, DNR large lake specialist for the
133,000-acre lake that’s managed jointly with Chippewa tribes in
Minnesota and Wisconsin, angler harvest as of Aug. 15 was about
60,000 pounds of walleyes. Hooking mortality was estimated to be
about another 9,000 pounds, a lower morality rate than last year,
thanks in part to cooler lake water this summer.
The allotted state angler take this year is 307,500 pounds of
walleyes; anglers might take one-third that amount, which would
include hooking mortality.
“I’d be surprised we if get over 75,000 pounds (without
including hooking mortality),” Jones said.
The low catch, though, doesn’t surprise Jones or the DNR. Last
fall’s net catches were low, and lake forage is plentiful – in a
nutshell, the walleye population is lower than average, and those
fish aren’t too eager to bite.
“There are tons and tons of perch,” Jones said. “And lots of
Bill Lundeen, of Lundeens Tackle Castle, on Mille Lacs’ south
shore, believes the scope of the forage base is somewhat
incomprehensible for the average angler – it’s “of biblical
proportions,” he said.
The DNR’s and tribes’ tagging study indicated that there remain
plenty of walleyes. That study was conducted this spring, said Nick
Milroy, inland fisheries biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish
and Wildlife Commission in Wisconsin.
“There are lots out there to be caught, and they’re still out
there,” he said.
Non-lethal nets were used to recover tags this year, due mostly
to the poor fishing, thus an expected low tag return.
Lundeen said his catch for the season included an impressive
number of keepers (fish 14 to 18 inches long). “We also had a
respectable number over (18 inches) and a respectable number under
(14 inches),” he said.
Lundeen said he believes Mille Lacs fishing this year was closer
to “normal,” than other recent years of high angler harvest.
Because of the poor fishing that’s plagued Mille Lacs anglers
most of the season, there’s been less effort to catch fish. Last
year, amid a good walleye bite, there were an estimated 1.5 million
angler hours put into fishing the lake; this year, the current
estimate is about half that, and Jones said the total might end up
around 900,000 angling hours.
“That’s (because of) the bite,” he said. “It’s a response to
fishing more than the regulation.”
Following meetings with the angling public last winter, and with
a desire to create some stability into the Mille Lacs regulation,
officials set a protected slot of 18 to 28 inches this year, with a
four-walleye limit. One fish over 28 inches was allowed in
“We’re trying to get away from changing the regulation annually
(as well as making mid-season changes loosening or tightening the
regulation in place),” Jones said. “But as soon as we do that, we
run into a year like this.”
Jones said as it has in the past, the department will consult
with tribes and the public when evaluating the past fishing year
and structuring the next one, but for now, he’d like to stick with
what’s in place, regulation-wise. That way, when fishing improves
and harvest jumps, the department wouldn’t have to make a move and
greater restrict anglers.
At last year’s winter meetings, he said, the theme was “to work
toward long-term regulations.”
Lundeen was one of those local anglers/business owners who
supported a long-term approach to Mille Lacs fishing regs. And he
doesn’t like to see others who rely on the lake’s bounty
“flip-flop” following a “down” year.
“This is when I start crabbing at people who want to change
sides,” he said.
Some anglers supported a 20 to 28 rather than an 18- to 28-inch
slot last year. Lundeen wasn’t one of them.
“I would’ve rather had 18 to 28 than an extra couple inches, and
have had to go to 17 inches (next year),” he said.
As the DNR points out, Mille Lacs fishing is prone to
fluctuation. In 2003, the angler harvest was less than 40,000
pounds of walleyes (kill was about 66,000 pounds), and in 2004 the
harvest was about 71,000 pounds (kill was about 79,000 pounds.
Following a harvest of 176,000 in 2005, the state-angler harvest
jumped to 382,000 (kill of 480,000) in 2006 and 336,000 (kill of
463,000) in 2007.
Earlier this week, Jones said the department’s fall netting on
Mille Lacs was about half done. Crunching and evaluating the
numbers comes after netting activities.
The tribal allowed harvest this year increased from 100,000
pounds of walleyes in past year to 122,500 this year. However,
tribal harvest as of last week was about 88,000 pounds, according
to Milroy. Last year’s total tribal walleye harvest on Mille Lacs
was about 87,000 pounds.
Milroy noted that tribal harvest (by net) is not subject to the
whims of fish that may snub hook-and-line angler offerings. He said
tribal netting is minimal in the fall and winter.
The tribal harvest year end March 31, 2009, and, unless there’s
early ice-out, the harvest won’t grow much larger.
Jones notes that following their discovery a couple years ago,
exotic zebra mussels have flourished in Mille Lacs. Likely in the
future, they’ll have some effect on fishing, as they have in other
This past year, divers sampled about .5 per square foot in the
area sampled (a total of about 24,000, compared with 131 sampled in
2007). While numbers have jumped, the per-square-foot level is
still far below that of other infested waters, such as Lake Erie,
where biologists routinely count between 5,000 and 10,000
non-native zebes per square foot.
“It’s still low for what it can get to, but it’s increasing
rapidly,” Jones said.
Thus far, the effects of the zebras have been minimal, but
they’re now showing up attached to native mussels, and likely will
affect those species. It’s also likely the zebes will begin
attaching themselves to native crayfish.
As they have in other waters, zebes and their filtering action
will probably increase water clarity (which will affect fishing)
and they’ll affect those who draw water from the lake, by clogging