Businesses in Mille Lacs area benefiting from fine walleye bite
Isle, Minn. — The walleye bite on Lake Mille Lacs this winter has been reported to be great — some say as good as it’s been in nearly a decade.
With a one-walleye limit in place and word of some hefty fish being iced, many a wheel house has been parked on Mille Lacs this winter, rather than proceeding to lakes farther north.
But it’s still too early to tell how much impact that might have on any of the local lake-related businesses, particularly those struggling after several years of restrictive open-water walleye regulations. Greatly reduced open-water quotas – including last year’s catch-and-release rule – have kept some anglers away for several years now.
But the steady winter traffic hasn’t hurt.
“We’ve been real busy,” said George Nitti, owner of Nitti’s Hunters Point Resort north of Isle. “That’s going to help us. It’s hard to recoup the years of losses.”
Nitti said some of his customers have had phenomenal fishing, including reports of as many as 30-, 60-, and 70-fish days.
Regardless, Nitti has continued to send his customers home with one walleye he purchases through his food supplier, as he’s been doing for a couple of seasons now.
“All of our rental houses were doing really well,” he said, noting that the bite slowed down a bit on the final weekend of the month.
That’s what most reported on Sunday from the lake’s east side, where Mike Verdeja, of McQuoid’s Inn, and Mike Lauren fished out in the wind, off of the ice road maintained by Mac’s Twin Bay Resort.
“You should have been here last weekend,” said Lauren’s daughter, Amber, who fished out of her family’s wheel house Sunday afternoon.
She’s fished Mille Lacs almost every day of the ice season, preferring to do her homework in the wheel house (often while fishing a rattle wheel or two), and has caught a pair of 27-inch walleye, including one last weekend.
Verdeja agreed that the winter walleye bite has been one of the best on Mille Lacs in years. He said the bite has been good for most of the fish house rental businesses that he’s heard from, including the one he manages.
“Most of the ice house rental places got close to selling out, which is better than we have been doing the last few years,” he said.
He’s been just as encouraged by the physical condition of most of the walleyes he’s caught and seen this winter.
“They’re in good shape,” he said, suggesting that the bite hasn’t been driven by a lack of forage in the lake, as was suspected last winter when the bite was noted as good.
On a slow morning of fishing, with the duo hopping and drilling holes, changing spots twice, they did manage to catch a couple of fat walleyes under the 19- to 21-inch harvest slot (with one fish allowed over 28 inches), backing up Veredeja’s claim.
That morning, a few other smaller walleyes also were landed, fish that neither looked fat nor malnourished, and Lauren also caught one corpulent jumbo perch.
Lindy Madson, who manages Johnson’s Portside, a bait shop with a convenience store, said traffic has been excellent all winter.
While some resorts and fish house rental businesses struggle to find ways to attract business from wheel house anglers, Madson said Johnson’s Portside does manage to capture a good deal of that traffic.
“They get bait, they get tackle, and you gotta have snacks out in that fish house,” she said, noting that sweat shirt and cribbage boards also have moved well this winter.
Madson doesn’t think the one-fish limit has hurt too much this winter, what with word of a good bite going.
“When you catch 30 and 40 fish, that’s a memory,” Madson said. “Are you gonna remember eating that fillet?”
Paul Kuehl, of St. Louis Park, while having a drink at the bar at Nitti’s Hunters Point Resort, said, as an often weekly visitor to the lake, that he’s had great days on the ice without even trying too hard, while playing cribbage with a few rattle wheels going.
“This winter has been the best for me in eight years,” he said, recalling the 27-incher he landed and mentioning one party reporting five fish over 25 inches during a prior weekend excursion.
Over at Bayview Bar and Grill in Onamia, Bill Putz, of Milaca, and friend Darrell Wicklund, of Mora, were having a pre-fishing meal before heading out of Brandt’s on Sunday afternoon.
Despite living relatively close to the lake, it was the first fishing trip to Mille Lacs of the winter, Putz lamented.
“Just came up for the day,” he said. “I wish I’d gotten here sooner. I just never get a chance. I work all of the time. Today I finally just said, ‘Screw it,’ and put all of the stuff in the truck.”
He, too, had heard much buzz about the bite, about big-number days, and big fish catches, and he thumbed through several pictures on his smartphone, through pictures of buddies with fish over the 27-inch mark.
“Last weekend, a buddy said every time he dropped his line he got a walleye,” he said.
Tina Chapman, co-owner of Chapman’s Mille Lacs Resort and executive director of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council (as well as a member of DNR’s Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee) said social media has helped spread the word this winter.
She was hopeful that attitudes might also be changing about the limited harvest opportunity.
“Maybe people are becoming more accepting of the one-fish limit,” she said. “I think people just wanted to get back to Mille Lacs. Some have been away for a couple of years.”