Brian Nerbonne, regional fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spoke at the Mille Lacs Lake Fisheries Advisory Committee (MLFAC) meeting held at McQuoid’s Inn and Event Center in Isle on Nov. 3. Nerbonne gave a brief overview into how and what factors dictate the regulations on Mille Lacs each season.
Nerbonne explained, “The state goes into negotiations with the bands and together we decide on the allowable harvest for that year that then gets split between the state anglers and the bands. Once the allocation (the amount of pounds of walleye that is available) is set, the state then has to pick a regulation that is going to be used for that year.”
He said there are a lot of moving pieces within the regulation. “There are the seasons that we allow harvest, or just allow fishing for that matter. There have been partial closures throughout the year the past few years to try and save pounds for other parts of the year.”
He went on to say there can be size limits to allow harvest of different sizes of fish, bags limits that allow the number of fish that anglers can harvest, and there’s timing as to where and when they put those in place; i.e. Is it the winter time, spring time or is it the fall? “We’re trying to pick a regulation that has a pretty strong certainty of keeping the state within our allowable harvest.”
He said they (the DNR) have heard from the public, and realize that unplanned closures and shutting down the fishery due approaching the allowable harvest “is a big problem for businesses and anglers and all sorts of folks.”
So in setting those regulations, the DNR has to make decisions based on what they hear from the public, input groups and the management plan to put in a plan in place for what’s important to different people at different times of the year. “For a long time we heard – especially from this group (MLFAC) – that winter fishing was really important; especially to have some harvest opportunity, that was important to get anglers here.”
Nebonne said during the management plan process, “we heard from a bunch of people that think the spring fishing is even more important than the winter fishing, but then we also heard from people that thought the fall fishing was really important as well.”
He went on to say that they’re trying to balance all these different competing interests with “a piece of the pie that isn’t big enough to give everyone what they want to see.” So with that, they have to prioritize where they can allocate the pounds throughout the season in hopes of not having an unplanned closure like in many years past.
He explained that’s where the planned closures come in, in hopes of saving some pounds for other times of the year, in this case the fall fishing. He recognized that unplanned closures have been a problem for quite some time now.
Bill Eno from Twin Pines Resort on the west side said, “That’s a big problem for some people, but it’s a bigger problem when you’re so conservative and leave fish on the table that we could have had, so we suffer for the whole period of time. So there’s those two balances, but until we start with the number, all the rest is just different mechanics, what’s the number?”
Nerbonne responded, “What’s the number is part of it, what’s the size of the piece of pie we’re going to be working with.” Eno then said, “Right, and you guys kind of already know that.” Which in turn the DNR denied saying, “We haven’t even talked to the Bands yet, we have the netting data (fall survey), but we do not have the modeling data and the actual decision is not made until January.” Eno said he thought that was something they were going to have at the meeting.
Nerbonne said, “You’re right, Bill (Eno), us thinking about how conservative we set those regulations, that’s kind of one of the things we want to hear about.” He then went on to cite the balance and variables of the different seasons, like what happened in 2019 when state anglers exceeded the allowable harvest because of a strong bite and high water temperatures that contributed to the increased hooking mortality (fish that die after release).
Nerbonne continued, “And then there’s this year, where the catch rates are really low and the water temperatures are pretty moderate and suddenly we’re way down at 16,000 pounds” (out of an allowable harvest of 80,300 pounds for the state). He went on to say there is a balance there and also a lot of uncertainty of what the conditions are going to be next summer.
Eno said it all comes back to the number, and the higher that is, the easier all the rest of the formula will be. The DNR agreed. Eno then held their feet to the fire and asked, “Do you think we can get to 200,000 pounds?” The response was, “We can’t even tell you until we can dig into the modeling data.” In which Eno replied, “That’s fair.”
MLFAC committee member Laurie Westerlund posed the question as to when the meeting with the Bands is going to take place. The meeting will be Jan. 19, 2023. The talk then turned to the turnover in the legislature (two legislators are invited to the meeting strictly as observers). It was voiced that losing some key people there “is a huge loss.”
Fisheries section manager Brad Parsons then said, “That’s hugely important and we should know, I would think, by late December who the chairs for the various natural resource committees are in the house and the senate, and they will be given invitations, and we’ll go from there.” Westerlund stressed that the legislators that attend the meeting should be from the Mille Lacs area and not from outside the area. Parsons said he would carry her point forward.
It was then noted that whoever it is, is only an observer to the meeting, not a participant, to which Westerlund replied, “It doesn’t matter, and they have to catch up really quick.” To which Parsons said, “I agree and I understand.”
MLFAC Chair Dean Hanson of Agate Bay Resort on the east side brought up the point that the group (MLFAC) had stressed for a long time to not have any unplanned closure, and the DNR listened and put in a fudge factor on the allowable harvest; for example, if the quota was 87,000 pounds, the DNR would regulate for 65,000 as a safety factor so there would hopefully not be an unplanned closure. He now thinks that was an “over emphasis” reiterating that they still don’t want unplanned closures but also, to Eno’s point, “Not leave so much on the table, I don’t think that’s right.”
He went on to say he thinks there may have been too much emphasis on the winter harvest and not enough on the summer harvest “If you look at the last six years of summer harvest – not hooking mortality, just harvest – it’s 28,000 pounds and four of those years had no harvest at all. Everyone one of those winters had a lot of harvest, some more than others.” He noted that the winter season is two months long, the summer season is five months. “How much sense does that make to have more harvest in one winter than in six summers? I just think we have to change our priorities.”
The DNR noted that the hooking mortality is a lot higher in the summertime, and that angling hours in the summer are actually falling off, and the winter hours are shooting up.
MLFAC member Larry Dahler said, “People aren’t interested in September. There were many days on the north end I could see from Wealthwood to the Red Door, and I was the only boat out there. They want to fish in to June. People like to fish walleye, people like to eat walleye. These aren’t muskie and smallmouth. People want to take a fish and have a meal.”
The DNR said that they can offer a fall harvest season easier than a summer harvest as the water temperatures are cooler and there is less post mortality, catch rates seem to be lower, and the overall angling hours are lower. “So that’s something we can have on the table a little easier.”
Talk then ensued about the one-inch increase in the slot change to 20-23 inches instead of 21-23 inches and its ineffectiveness considering there was over 60,000 pounds remaining of the allowable harvest. It was noted that the night bite was way down as well as the anglers and that previous regulations (planned closure after Labor Day for many years) has driven the anglers away, and “it’s tough to get them back.”
The DNR responded that the one-inch increase would up the possible harvest by 50% and if they would have made it two inches, it would have been up by 100% or more and that was a risk they weren’t willing to take.
The group then brought up that there should be provisions at the beginning of the year in place so if this happens in the future there would be a contingency plan in place. The fact that it takes the DNR 60 days to make a regulation change, yet they can announce an unplanned closure in a matter of weeks doesn’t seem fair. The DNR responded that they are going to work on that.