Mille Lacs catch rate declines; new reg ahead?

Aitkin, Minn. — It probably surprises few that the walleye catch on Lake Mille Lacs has slipped this year, given no fishing-opener action thanks to late ice-out, as well as poor weather much of the spring.

Further, “hooking mortality” thus far has been nearly nonexistent, as the 130,000 acres of lake water warmed somewhat later than usual.

That has DNR Fisheries folks considering what could happen at the end of this month.

“Right now we’re waiting to see what happens in the final period (two weeks) in June,” Eric Jensen, DNR large lake specialist, said Tuesday. “We’re continually evaluating.”

Here are the stats thus far:

The allowable take of walleyes from the lake this year for sport anglers is 178,750 pounds, half what it was last year. That’s because of a 40-year low walleye estimate last fall, which prompted a tight harvest slot – 18 to 20 inches – and a two-fish bag, down from four last year. One fish over 28 inches is allowed in possession.

The regulation, together with a host of other factors, has resulted in a walleye take this open-water season of about 17,600 pounds. With the ice-fishing harvest, the total harvest is now about 35,400 pounds of walleyes (ice fishing usually accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of walleye harvest, but likely will be somewhat higher this year). Add to that hooking mortality of less than 2,000 pounds this year, and the take of about 40,000 pounds of walleyes is a far cry, at this point, from the harvest quota.

That said, the latter part of June, the period critical to any future slot or bag-limit change, “can be a screwy period,” according to Jensen. Some years, walleye harvest has jumped dramatically. Other years it’s gone the other direction, and some it’s kept on the same track as earlier in the season. Weather can affect fishing pressure during that period, and higher temperatures can result in a surge in hooking mortality (the warmer the air and water temps, the higher the estimated number of fish that die after being released).

Jensen said Mille Lacs walleye-fishing regulations were changed in early to mid-July twice in the recent past – in 2010 and 2007.

Because of the narrow harvest slot, the percentage of released fish has been great, as expected, this year. About 242,000 pounds have been released during the early open-water season, Jensen said.

That’s comparable to similar time periods in both 2011 (278,600 pounds) and 2010 (280,000 pounds). Last year, midway through June, nearly 900,000 pounds of walleyes had been released by sport anglers.

“That was kind of the anomaly,” Jensen said.

Also last year, hooking mortality itself accounted for a take of 136,000 pounds of walleyes; angler harvest was about 174,000 pounds.

Taken by itself, this year’s May walleye harvest was the lowest ever, according to Jensen. Angling pressure during the month also took a dive. The average May angling pressure has averaged about 325,000 angler hours since 2000. This year, pressure was an estimated 85,200 hours.

There was a turnaround in June, however, Jensen said. Since 2000, June 1-15 angling pressure has averaged about 196,000 hours; it was about 150,000 this year.

The most telling number, however, is walleye harvest, with an open-water take this year of less than 18,000 pounds. By comparison, harvests during May and early June were 95,700 (plus 124,000 pounds of hooking mortality) in 2012, 68,500 pounds (72,300 hooking mortality) in 2011, and 103,200 (110,000 hooking mortality) in 2010, all years with a higher allowable harvest.

Jensen said regulations could change if 44 percent of the allowable harvest hasn’t been reached by the end of June. That would mean more harvested walleyes and hooking mortality (41,350 pounds) than what’s been taken so far this year during the open-water and ice-fishing seasons (37,300).

Whether the slot would be loosened or the bag limit would increase remains to be seen.

“That’s one of those things we’re constantly evaluating,” Jensen said.

He estimates about one in 10 walleyes caught from Mille Lacs this year has been a fish within the “keeper” (18- to 20-inch) range.

The goal of this year’s regulation was to reduce pressure on the lake’s smaller (mostly male) fish, and to stay beneath the state’s allocation.

Tribal netters and spearers this year from the Mille Lacs Band and seven others (six from Wisconsin) were limited to a take of 71,250 pounds of walleyes this year. During the spawning period, when the vast majority of walleyes are taken by Ojibwe bands, about 14,000 pounds of fish were speared or netted. Last year, the tribal take was about 76,000 pounds.

Band members, too, were hindered by late ice-out on the lake. Because of that, spearing became a better option (about 11,000 pounds taken) than netting (about 3,000 pounds).

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