Mille Lacs walleye harvest to see big reduction

Aitkin, Minn. — When state and tribal officials emerged from meetings last week with the recommendation that the walleye take from Lake Mille Lacs in the coming year be cut in half, it didn’t surprise Rick Bruesewitz, the DNR’s fisheries supervisor in Aitkin and a former designated 1837 Treaty biologist for the central Minnesota lake.

But, Bruesewitz added, “It’s not a good situation to be in.”

He and other biologists now will be looking into ways for state anglers to stay beneath their share of a total of 250,000 pounds of walleyes – 178,750 pounds, down from an allocation of 357,500 pounds last year. The total angler harvest was about 310,000 pounds. What may be more telling is that last year’s hooking mortality total (the estimate of released fish that died) was about 136,000 pounds.

“Obviously, that’s a big concern,” Bruesewitz said of hooking mortality. He said during this year’s rule-making for the lake, biologists will need to consider what it will take to reduce that contribution to the walleye total harvest.

Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries research manager, said hooking mortality will need to be closely monitored.

“This could be a year where hooking mortality, unfortunately, is the bulk of what’s recorded in the state allocation,” Pereira said. “We’re expecting a reasonable bite.”

The eight Ojibwe bands that gill-net walleyes on Mille Lacs, meanwhile, also accepted a 50-percent reduction in their allocation of the lake’s favorite fish. Last year’s allocation was 142,500 pounds of walleyes; this year’s will be 71,250 pounds. Last year, the bands’ take was about 80,000 pounds.

Bruesewitz probably wasn’t the only DNR biologist not taken aback by the severe reduction. Other lake interests, too, probably saw it coming when survey nets last year pulled the lowest walleye total in 40 years.

Not only that, but officials said concerns were greater than ever about the number of smaller fish – the males – that they were sampling. Those fish likely face the greatest harvest pressure, not only from tribal nets, but from state anglers limited by protected slots.

A limited forage base for walleyes further complicates the matter, Bruesewitz said. And, he added, the current state of affairs could mean increased harvest of northern pike and/or smallmouth bass, which likely are affecting the lake’s walleye population.

Prior to last week’s meeting, DNR and tribal officials already had committed to a spring population assessment to better grasp the condition of Mille Lacs walleyes. The findings aren’t likely to affect the lake’s anglers this year.

Now, state biologists will work to come up with scenarios regarding possible regulations for the 132,000-acre lake before meeting with constituents in about a month. And tribes will meet to determine how the walleye allocation will be split between them. Last year, the Mille Lacs band could take up to about 20 percent of the share, according to Sue Erickson, spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which advocates for 11 tribes regarding resource matters. The Fond du Lac band of Minnesota also nets Mille Lacs, as do six Wisconsin bands.

As the Minnesota DNR considers its options, it can look to past allocations and catches – and the resulting regulations – but this year’s situation likely is unique, Bruesewitz said.

The lowest previous safe harvest level occurred early during the state-tribal management era. In 1998, the SHL was 260,000 pounds of walleyes. The state’s share was 220,000 pounds, the tribes’ just 40,000 pounds. Total kill by state anglers that year was over 400,000 pounds; the regulation was a 15-inch minimum, six-fish limit.

Bruesewitz said a situation more similar to this year’s was in 2008, when the total walleye kill by state anglers was about 164,000 pounds; the allocation that year was 307,500 pounds. Why the low catch? There were few fish outside the protected 18- to 28-inch slot, and the forage base was better than satisfactory, Bruesewitz said; hungry fish more readily will take an angler’s offering.

And that’s one of the considerations adding complexity to this year’s Mille Lacs walleye regs – the forage base isn’t in good shape.

Bruesewitz said the department got “mixed signals” when monitoring the tullibee population. Overall, the adult population of tullibees appears to be “not extremely low,” but few young tullibees were found during monitoring.

The number of perch, too, seemed to be fewer than what’s considered satisfactory for the lake.

What’s it all mean? The lack of tullibees is “troublesome,” Bruesewitz said. With that option off the table in some instances, “Bigger walleyes need perch, and if perch aren’t there, they’ll eat (small) walleyes,” he said.

Taken one step further, those hungry walleyes will, in theory, more quickly take angler baits, and during warm summer months, build on kill attributed to hooking mortality.

This winter might provide some insight into what anglers might find this spring, walleye bite-wise, and how problematic hooking mortality might be.

Eric Jensen, DNR fisheries specialist in Aitkin, said winter walleye fishing success is a good indicator of what to expect come springtime.

That’s just another consideration when setting next year’s regulations.

“I’d imagine just about everything is on the table,” Jensen said.

Why the problem?

There might be growing consensus among lake interests why the walleye population is, as stated by DNR researcher Pereira, “approaching the cliff’s edge,” but DNR officials also will add that there likely are a number of contributing factors, and a few unknowns. They hope some questions will be answered this spring when a population assessment (mark and recapture) of walleyes is done for the first time since 2008.

Former DNR fisheries employee, author, and walleye advocate Dick Sternberg has a theory, and he says it’s pretty straight-forward.

“It’s common sense what’s happening up there,” he said this week. “You’ve got all these fish that are being protected, including smallmouths, and they all have to eat.”

The growing number of zebra mussels further challenges the fishery, he said, by reducing walleye fertility and affecting baitfish.

Besides other fish eating small walleyes, Sternberg said, past studies have shown a certain degree of cannibalism in walleyes, as well. Walleye hatches, he said, are often good, but the fish are struggling to survive the first couple years when they’re most vulnerable.

Bruesewitz said this likely is the year steps are taken to reduce the amount of walleye mortality due to bass and pike predation.

Currently there’s a 27- to 40-inch protected slot for northern pike, with one over 40 inches allowed in possession. For smallmouth bass, all fish less than 21 inches must be released, and the possession limit is one. The Mille Lacs citizen committee likely will be given a chance to comment on the DNR’s recommendations regarding those species.

Last year, Bruesewitz said, “The group was amenable to changing the regulations on smallmouth bass; the year before there was more resistance. It’s just something we didn’t do last season.” With more information now, he said, “We will make (a) change.”

If for some reason that fails to occur, Pereira said the DNR would seek more compelling data regarding the intake of small walleyes by smallies.

As for pike, Bruesewitz said there were few strong opinions on either side of the special regulations argument, and that the species isn’t targeted to the extent of some others.

“Whatever we do with pike on the lake, we’d like to reduce the population to some extent while still maintaining the quality (size),” he said.

The total allowable harvest of northern pike for the upcoming year increased from 30,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds. The allocation for tribes increased from 15,000 to 25,000 pounds.

Bruesewitz said those fisheries officials conducting the spring walleye population survey likely will sample the stomach contents of some pike that are netted during the course of the survey.
Survey results

DNR sample nets have been indicating a decline in the number of smaller walleyes – males – in nets for years. In the process, they’ve been waiting for the number of those fish to stabilize, which hasn’t happened.

Likely to blame are both tribal gill nets, set early in the spring when male walleyes arrive in the shallow lake areas to spawn, prior to the arrival of females. Also, protected slots for several years have limited the take of small walleyes by hook-and-line anglers.

This year’s decline in 2012 DNR survey nets “was a significantly greater decline than forecast,” Pereira said. He said there also was a “huge decline” in the number of female walleyes, something that was unexpected.

Pereira said the action of the bands was a “voluntary departure from their new five-year plan,” an interim year, per se.

The possibility hasn’t been brought up, but even if it were, Pereira said walleye stocking wouldn’t alleviate the issues regarding Mille Lacs. Young-of-the-year walleye classes have been good, he said.

It’s just that they don’t seem to be adequately surviving the first two years of life.

The tribes

GLIFWC spokesperson Erickson said the course of action for tribes hasn’t yet been determined, including how the tribes will divide their share of walleyes. A season like last year still would keep them within their allocation.

“Yes, this will represent a decrease (in harvest), but the tribes really are looking at the health and sustainability of this fishery,” she said.

Erickson expects gill-netting to proceed as normal, though the bands might consider some changes in regulations.

Representative response

Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, long has advocated for changes in the way business is conducted regarding the Lake Mille Lacs fishery. This year is no different. At the outset of the legislative session, she introduced three bills directed at the lake that what goes on in regulation setting.

For one thing, she’d require the DNR commissioner every year to report the costs associated with Mille Lacs management. Another would open – to some extent – the technical meetings conducted by state and tribal biologists. And the third would require legislative approval of the Mille Lacs walleye harvest five-year plan.

This week, Erickson called the announcement regarding the reduction in the walleye safe harvest level “discouraging for those who love to fish and catch walleyes.”

She also said tighter regulations will hurt the area economy, including resorts, restaurants, and other entities surrounding the lake.

Past quotas, catches, regs

Three times since 1997 has the state angler catch been below this year’s allocation: In 2008, the total kill was about 164,000 pounds (state allocation was 307,500), in 2004 it was 154,500 pounds (allocation, 380,000), and in 2003 it was 137,000 pounds (allocation, 450,000).

The highest take by state anglers was in 1999, with 627,000 pounds of walleyes harvested or dead by hooking mortality. More than 500,000 pounds were taken in both 2006 and 2007.

The tribes’ high-water mark was in 2010, with a net catch of about 124,000 pounds. In 2001, their take was about 60,000 pounds of walleyes.

Categories: Feature, News, Social Media, Walleye

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *