Mille Lacs group sets rules, awaits fall data
Isle, Minn. — The newly formed Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, 17 people including fishing guides, resort owners, local government officials, and others, convened for the first time last week at McQuoid’s Inn near Isle. While much of the evening was spent with the mundane of “getting to know you” and the setting of ground rules, it won’t be long before the members are met with making critical recommendations regarding Mille Lacs fishing.
Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief, said state and tribal officials – the Mille Lacs Fisheries Technical Committee – would be meeting this week to review fall assessment data, and to see what ice-fishing options for walleye fishing might be this winter. It will be up to the advisory committee to determine, then, which option might be the most palatable.
But there are a few things to figure out prior to declaring a walleye-fishing season will begin again, after it abruptly closed in August as state anglers crept up to and went past the allowable kill of those fish.
DNR officials told group members about a couple positive preliminary observations from fall assessment nets, but cautioned more examination is necessary, along with a discussion with 1837 Treaty bands.
“So, I don’t want you (AG members) running out and saying we’re going to have fish (walleyes) to kill this winter; it’s looking good right now,” Pereira said. “(But) we have heavy stuff to do in the next few weeks before (knowing what such a fishing season might be).”
In a follow-up email to Outdoor News, Pereira reiterated: “While the assessment netting results are encouraging, we still need to complete the preliminary data analysis and modeling, consult with the bands, and receive recommendations from the new Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee before we make any decisions regarding the winter fishery.”
Besides determining if there are fish available to kill, Pereira said the technical committee, too, will have to address the “gnarly issue” that is the so-called overage – the pounds of walleye kill that surpassed state anglers’ quota of 28,600 pounds this past year. “We need to figure out how we’re gonna process that from a political perspective,” he said, referring to discussions with 1837 band members.
A catch-and-release season would result in almost no actual kill, as delayed hooking mortality, which caused the kill to increase rapidly this summer, is negligible during the winter months.
“Hopefully, we’ll have some fish to kill (this winter),” Pereira told the advisory group.
Even if it’s determined some walleye take can occur during the ice season, the DNR predicts it will take a conservative approach, as winter take applies to the overall harvest allowance, and the actual “safe harvest level” won’t be known until January, Pereira said. That’s because time is needed for data analysis and “running models,” and then “meeting to deliberate it all and determine what is our best estimate of walleyes in the lake,” Pereira wrote in the email.
Missy Treml, DNR Fisheries research and policy manager, said that this fall the “mature walleye benchmark” of 10 pounds of mature walleyes per net was exceeded and appeared to increase slightly since last year. The “2013 Walleye Year-Class Benchmark” of more than 2.15 per gill net also was exceeded, with more than 4 fish on average in each net.
The catch of age-0 fish (fingerlings, basically) was “a little below average,” Treml said, but “that can be a hit or miss thing.” She added that it’s usually not until the fish are 2 years old that officials can more confidently state the strength of a walleye year-class.
Treml also noted that fall assessment nets indicated pike numbers had decreased, while those of smallmouth bass continued to go the other direction. “Their numbers still seem to be soaring,” Treml told the 14 of 17 AG members present.
Members of the group brought up a number of other relevant issues bound for lengthy discussion at subsequent meetings. (Pereira said the group could meet quarterly, but likely it would be required about every couple months.)
• The DNR acknowledged that past harvest determinations may have been to liberal and may have been too direct – liberal in that the allowed harvest for many years was 24 percent (pounds) of all walleyes over 14 inches. Further, Treml said, the harvest usually targeted a specific size of fish, and made male walleyes vulnerable to harvest longer, due to slower growth and behavior (more time spent in shallow water during the spawn).
In the future, both the size and sex of the walleyes harvested need to be considered, Treml said.
Pereira, in an email response, said the goal now for Mille Lacs is to “rebuild the spawning stock. We therefore simply determine how many pounds can be removed without countering that goal. So the actual percent exploitation rate does not directly factor in.”
While the spawning stock has produced decent year-classes recently, there’s a gap between those now mature and the next big crop of fish – that revered 2013 year-class.
Rules that protect that class need to be conservative in nature, Treml said, “because that’s our future.”
Dean Hanson, owner of Agate Bay Resort near Isle (and, along with fishing guide Tony Roach, is one of two current co-chairs of the group), has high hopes for those fish. “The 2013 year-class is going to make this lake turn around,” he said. “I really believe that.”
• Bill Eno, AG member and owner of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison, said the matter of hooking mortality and its accuracy should be discussed.
• Roach suggested in setting the walleye-fishing season, the DNR should consider the availability of bait fish, which often determine the walleye bite.
Mille Lacs is unlike other lakes, according to Pereira.
“This lake … can give us fits because of the variability of catchability from year to year,” he said, adding that that particular characteristic was in place long before the water began to clear in the mid-1990s and invasives including spiny waterfleas and zebra mussels later became part of the lake’s landscape.
• The potential for stocking walleyes no doubt will be broached by the AG.
In an email response to Outdoor News regarding past walleye stocking in Mille Lacs, Pereira said this: “Yes, it was stocked, perhaps as recently as the 70s. However, because we now know much better about the abundance of walleye in Mille Lacs, we also know that those numbers were likely minuscule. Any genetic damage was quickly swamped by the native fish.”