Winter walleye season on tap for anglers at Mille Lacs
By Tim Spielman
St. Paul — For now, some of the anxiety regarding walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs has been alleviated. The DNR announced earlier this week that state-licensed anglers will be allowed to harvest up to 5,000 pounds of walleyes from the central-Minnesota lake this winter, providing relief for area business owners who saw traffic plummet after walleye fishing was closed early in August.
But fall assessments brought positive results, and, following discussions with tribal officials, the state DNR said it was comfortable reopening the fishery.
“This decision allows anglers and businesses to look forward to some harvest opportunity during the upcoming winter angling season that begins Dec. 1,” Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, said in a press release on Monday. “We’ll announce a final decision about the details of the ice-fishing season by the last week of October, following a (Wednesday) meeting with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee.”
That meeting was to be held in the Garrison area.
Many thought the DNR’s announcement regarding whether or not walleye fishing would be reopened would occur at that meeting. Thus, Dean Hanson’s response on Tuesday.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Hanson, who, with his wife, Renee, owns Agate Bay Resort, just south of Malmo.
“It’s really good news,” added Hanson, co-chair of the advisory committee. “It shows how much the lake is coming back.”
The DNR says fisheries biologists are now evaluating the effects of various fishing regulation alternatives for the committee to mull. Harvest will be closely tracked.
“We will monitor creel data every two weeks during the winter and will assess in January whether we need to adjust the state’s harvest level for the rest of the winter to stay under 5,000 pounds,” Pereira said in the release. “At the January State and Tribal Fisheries Technical Committee meeting, we will set the safe harvest level for the year, which will inform the open-water fishing regulation to be set in late winter.”
Brad Parsons, DNR Central Region fisheries manager, said the allowed harvest this winter on the lake was based largely on last year’s harvest of about 3,100 pounds of walleyes.
It’s worth noting, too, Parsons said, that delayed hooking mortality during winter is “almost negligible.” Last winter, less than 50 pounds of walleyes counted toward hooking mortality, a tiny fraction of the total kill. By comparison, during the first two weeks of July, it accounted for nearly 80 percent of the walleye kill attributed to hook-and-line anglers – and largely was the reason for the season closure, as the 28,600-pound quota was reached, he said.
Hanson anticipates the DNR will suggest a conservative approach to winter angling. Last year, the ice season opened with a two-fish limit and an 18- to 20-inch harvest slot. That eventually became a one-fish limit for the open-water season. Last year, he said, ice arrived early on the 130,000-acre lake, and stayed strong all season.
According to the DNR’s press release, the decision to allow walleye take up to 5,000 pounds was “because September fish assessment data show that pounds of spawning-age walleyes and numbers of walleyes from the 2013 year-class were above established benchmarks.”
It’s that much ballyhooed 2013 class of fish that could buoy a better-than-good walleye bite this winter, Hanson said.
Last winter, he said, fish bit well. But those 2013 fish, now around 14 inches or so, could up the ante.
“For action, I think it will be better this year,” Hanson said.
Business owners like Hanson say that just having an ice-fishing season for walleyes is a step in the right direction. It also allows ice-fishing aficionados to make plans to fish Mille Lacs walleyes, if they so desire.
“For a long time, there was uncertainty about whether or not we were even going to have a season,” Hanson said.