Mille Lacs bass, pike fishermen enjoy a fair start

Aitkin, Minn. — It’s a small sample set so far, but early indications are Mille Lacs anglers are opting to harvest a few more smallmouth bass and northern pike this year, given a tight, 18- to 20-inch harvest slot for walleyes and further loosening of regulations for those particular other game fish.

Through May, walleye harvest, as determined via a Mille Lacs creel survey, was about 2,650 pounds of fish, according to Eric Jensen, large lake specialist in the DNR’s Aitkin office. During the same time period, the harvest of smallies was estimated to be about  1,200 pounds, while that of northern pike was about 3,000 pounds.

Angler effort this year has been an improvement over last year’s lowest-ever level of 85,200 hours during May; this year’s effort has been 124,200 hours, Jensen said. Last year, the fishing opener was marred by ice that remained on the central-Minnesota lake. This year, ice was gone, but not long before the May 10 opener, likely forcing traveling fishermen to consider safer options.

That said, during May 2013 state anglers harvested about 6,000 pounds of walleyes, compared with this year’s 2,650 pounds. About 38,000 pounds were released in May this year, compared with about 88,300 pounds last year.

“We had a better bite last year, no doubt about it,” Jensen said.

Hooking mortality was about 150 pounds last year in May, and about 200 pounds this year.

Meanwhile, the pike take in May was triple that of last year – 3,000 pounds to 2013’s 1,000 pounds, according to Jensen. The number of fish kept increased from 225 pike to about 780.

The smallie harvest this year in May was about 1,200 pounds, up from 450 pounds last May, he said. The fish take has increased from 140 to 225 smallies for those 22 days in May 2014.

While the walleye bite has been tough – likely linked to a high number of available forage fish like perch, according to Jensen – the increase in take of pike and smallies likely can be attributed, in part, to new regulations this year.

In March the DNR announced Mille Lacs anglers would be allowed to keep up to 10 northerns, only one of which could be longer than 30 inches. Last year the limit was three fish, with a 33- to 40-inch protected slot (one over 40 inches allowed).

As for smallies, the earlier harvest season began May 10 (along with walleyes and northerns), and anglers may keep six bass, with only one over 18 inches. Last year, six fish could be kept, but they had to be between 17 and 20 inches, with only one over 20 inches.

Including winter walleye harvest, the total take for state-licensed anglers is about 3,350 pounds of fish, Jensen said. That amount likely won’t prompt further restrictions. Because the state harvest of walleyes on Mille Lacs is 42,900 pounds (178,750 pounds in 2013), there are various “trigger points” at certain intervals during the fishing season, where actual kill will be compared with the predicted catch to determine if modifications need to be made. Already to limit walleye harvest, the DNR has prohibited night fishing on the lake; that prohibition began after the opening weekend of fishing.

“The current walleye regulation and the extended night fishing ban will protect upcoming year-classes of young walleyes, adult spawning stock, and help ensure the harvest stays within the safe harvest level,” DNR Fisheries chief Don Pereira said in an earlier agency press release.

Carp take impressive

The bite may be tough for Mille Lacs anglers, but archers are finding the pickin’s quite easy. Through May, creel takers reported the highest fish take on the lake was that of common carp – to the tune of about 5,800 pounds, according to DNR treaty biologist Tom Jones. That’s about 1,000 pounds less than the combined take of walleyes, northern pike, and smallmouth bass.

It’s likely the vast majority of those carp have been harvested by those toting bow and arrow aboard their craft.

Jones said that harvest likely won’t have any effect on the overall population of carp in the lake.

Tribal walleye harvest

Jones said two Minnesota and six Wisconsin Chippewa bands combined to take about 14,000 pounds of walleyes from Mille Lacs this spring. The bands’ quota was 17,100 pounds. While it was said the low quota and high gas prices might keep some band members closer to home, “Everybody came,” Jones said.

One of those bands, the Mole Lake band from Wisconsin, took just 100 of its allotted 800 pounds of walleyes.

Tribal members are allowed to spear or net fish.

“I think more speared this year than is typical,” Jones said. “I think there were a lot of bands that only speared (which allowed tribal members to be more size-selective).”

He said he believes the tribal harvest of Mille Lacs walleyes is near complete. Last year, Mille Lacs tribal netters and spearers took about 15,000 pounds of walleyes, from a 71,250-pound allocation.

Population study ongoing

Jones said the DNR continues with its populations studies of both Mille Lacs walleyes, as well as northern pike.

Fish earlier were marked – walleyes with tags – and now biologists are recapturing the fish, to estimate the populations.

About 14,400 walleyes were marked this year, about double that of last year when late ice kept boats off the lake until much of the spawn was complete (when fish are closer to shore, they’re easier to net).

Jones said earlier this week that recapturing had resulted in 79 tagged walleyes from 1,384 netted fish.

“(The population) is looking similar to last year based on the catch so far,” he said, adding that recapture could continue for a few days if the lake water temperature remains low enough.

“We netted (recapture) four weeks last year,” Jones said. “We’ve been doing it just over a week (as of Monday) so far this year. (How long it continues) depends on water temperature.”

During final analysis, he said, certain adjustments are made to the population estimate.

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