With high July kill, Mille Lacs walleye-fishing closure likely

St. Paul — Just a couple of weeks ago, DNR Fisheries officials reported state-licensed anglers were about halfway to their limited allocation of this year’s Mille Lacs walleyes. But earlier this week, it was announced that  “unexpected and unprecedented” conditions during the first two weeks of July have brought the state precariously close to the allowed take of 28,600 pounds of walleyes.

“It’s very likely possible we’ll have to look at closing walleye fishing on Mille Lacs early next month,” Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner, said Tuesday during a press conference.

According to a DNR press release issued that afternoon, “During the first seven months of the monitoring period (December 2014 through June 2015) walleye harvest rates were at or below predicted levels. … Based upon those results, total harvest was expected to be below the state’s 28,600-pound limit for this 12-month period, and the DNR’s June 30 creel study showed the state was within 15,300 pounds of reaching the annual quota.”

July arrived, and the picture quickly changed.

“However, as of July 15, when the last angler survey was conducted, the state was within just 3,000 pounds of reaching the annual quota,” the press release states. “Records also show it was only the second time in 30 years that Mille Lacs walleye catch rates in July were higher than the second half of June.”

Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief, said warm water in July – the fact that the first two weeks of the month were the third-warmest on record – greatly increased hooking mortality of walleyes that were released (the limit this year was one fish within a 19- to 21-inch slot; or one over 28 inches).

Pereira said angling activity was high, too, during the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

The increase in dead walleyes (harvested or hooking mortality) during those first two weeks of the month was dramatic.

Including the winter season (the harvest season begins in December), at the end of June walleye anglers had harvested some 5,800 pounds of walleyes. Hooking mortality (which increases with water temperature) had reached 4,500 pounds. But during the first two weeks of July alone, according to the DNR, the harvest was about 2,100 pounds of walleyes (about 7,900 pounds total), and hooking mortality soared to 10,400 pounds (a total of 14,900 pounds). 

According to the DNR’s press release, Gov. Mark Dayton directed the DNR to wait until after the next creel survey, which will cover the period from July 16-31, to see if the most recent numbers are an aberration. During that time, officials at the DNR, the Office of Tourism, and Department of Employment and Economic Development will meet with resort owners and other affected stakeholders on Mille Lacs to discuss the situation and seek recommendations.

Also this week, DNR Fisheries officials were in the process of contacting Mille Lacs resorts and business, telling them of the likelihood of a walleye-fishing closure. Mille Lacs tribal officials, too, were aware of the situation, Pereira said, and had “expressed mutual concern” about the increased fish kill.

Officials said other forms of fishing would be allowed should walleye fishing be shut down, but anglers wouldn’t be allowed to “target” walleyes.

Pereira called it a “very challenging situation” during Tuesday’s press conference. He also said it was fluid.

“We don’t know when and if we’re going to close the season,” he said. “But the writing is on the wall that it will be early August.”

Since 2008, not enough young walleyes are surviving to maturity and replenishing the Mille Lacs Lake population. As a result, Mille Lacs walleye numbers are currently at a 30-year low. In response, the state instituted more restrictive walleye regulations this year in order to protect young walleyes so they could grow older.

The allowed take of walleyes has declined by leaps and bounds for the past several years.

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