Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Mille Lacs: tough ’eye bite ahead?

Aitkin, Minn. — The latest in a long line of data regarding Lake Mille Lacs is in, and state DNR officials say the results of fall netting brought with them a mix of good and bad – and what might not sound like positive news for anglers eventually could benefit them.

In the meantime, DNR Fisheries Aitkin area supervisor Rick Bruesewitz said, the department will consider regulation changes for winter walleye fishing on the central-Minnesota lake. Whether they’d be more or less restrictive regs isn’t known at this time.

“We will make a formal winter announcement in early November following analysis of our fall netting data,” Bruesewitz wrote in a letter to members of the Mille Lacs Input Group.

The ice-fishing season comes on the heels of an open-water season that saw state-licensed anglers take only 150,000 pounds of walleyes. Combined with a tribal take of about 15,000 pounds, the total walleye kill fell well below the combined cap of 250,000 pounds, according to Bruesewitz.

The fall netting assessment, he said in the letter, yielded “some positive rays of hope” regarding the lake’s walleye fishery.

In the letter, he said, “This cautious optimism is based largely on strong numbers of young-of-the-year walleyes that are six inches in length or slightly longer. If these fish can make it through winter and the following year, we could have a  strong 2013 year-class in the offing.”

Based on the recent past, that “if” has been what’s stood in the way of higher overall walleye numbers. But Bruesewitz said the larger size of the walleyes hatched this spring, as well as good number of young perch and tullibee, might make things different this year.

Larger young-of-the-year walleyes means there are fewer other fish that will eat them. And more perch and tullibees could provide a protective buffer from predators like northern pike and smallmouth bass, as well as other larger walleyes.

Having larger walleye fingerlings in the system this year “is a great thing,” Bruesewitz said. While the late spring may have resulted in smaller young-of-the-year fish in some locations, he said Mille Lacs fish likely benefitted from not-so-warm water, and also may have had at their disposal better forage options.

Biologists will know better a year from now if their size and having other tiny fish around them helped young walleyes survive, but that hasn’t been the case in past year, Bruesewitz said. However, walleye angler catch rates recently “suggest there’s a lot of forage out there.”

“There are plenty young-of-the-year walleyes,” he said. “Having them survive is what we need.”

Those younger, larger walleyes also showed up in some of the department’s survey nets this year, which caused a jump in overall catch rates. The number of adult fish in the assessment nets, Bruesewitz said, was about the same as last year, when catch rates reached historical lows.

His letter also says female spawning stock biomass “was still at an adequate level.”

But he advised input group members, “While that sounds tremendously good, it does not at this time do anything to help increase potential safe harvest levels, because age 1, 2, and 3 fish are still at very low levels.”

The decreased safe harvest level this past season was the reason for an 18- to 20-inch harvest slot and a two-fish limit for walleyes (one in possession over 28 inches).

Some of the positives from this year’s fall Mille Lacs netting:

• The highest catch of young-of-the year perch observed since the forage gill-net assessment began in 2006.

That, Bruesewitz said in the letter, has improved the condition of adult walleyes “substantially, and (it) will likely continue to improve with the abundant forage.”

• The “fine mesh forage nets” also captured more young-of the-year tullibees that had been netted for at least a couple year, the letter indicates.

“In spite of their apparent abundance, we did not see large numbers of young-of-the-year tullibees in the diet of the predators so far (another ongoing DNR study), suggesting that perch may be so abundant that they are buffering the tullibee. …”

There are still plenty of northern pike and smallmouth bass in Mille Lacs that will be competing for forage, the letter says.

Overall pike catch was “the highest observed since we started the 32-net survey in 1983.” Further, much of the increase in pike numbers was in the form of younger fish. The current pike regulation for Mille Lacs seeks to maintain a quality size structure (more larger fish) for pike.

Despite the loosening of regulations regarding northern pike and smallies this year, the harvest was relatively slim, Bruesewitz said. State anglers killed only about 11,000 pounds of northerns, while tribal fishers took about 3,200 pounds. The combined cap for pike was 50,000 pounds.

And creel surveys indicated that of the 72,000 smallmouth bass caught, only 1,600 saw the bottom of a livewell.

What’s this all mean?

With a still-low number of adult walleyes and a better forage base, it’s likely to mean a tough bite for winter anglers.

“Fishing could be challenging for a year at least, and I’m glad to see that,” Bruesewitz said, adding that a healthy forage base could lead to a resurgence in walleye numbers. “But Mille Lacs has been that way for generations.”

He also expects few or minor changes in angler regulations in the future.

Per the letter to input group members: “While it is too soon to speculate on safe harvest levels, I’m pretty certain they will not be going up,” Bruesewitz wrote.

“Our number one goal is to improve the walleye fishery as quickly as possible with as little adverse impact to anglers as possible,” he wrote.

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