The 2021 fishing season is well underway and once again, we are under very strict regulations on the harvest of walleyes from Mille Lacs Lake.
The answer is simple; the agreed upon quota is too low in my opinion.
We entered into this regulation season with a combined total quota of 150,000 pounds for the non-natives and the tribes. If it seems familiar, it is because we had the same quota last year. We have a fishery that is possibly in too good of shape. There are approximately 700,000 to one million plus walleyes that weigh upwards of two million pounds swimming in the lake. The lakes walleye population is not in any type of crisis situation, yet we are handed a poorly negotiated low quota that once again takes the opportunity of fishing away from all of us.
A survey was taken awhile back by anglers both in-person and online, and the most important thing noted was that the Minnesota DNR should not close the lake down to walleye fishing. Well that didn’t happen as we are just coming off of a two week closure to fishing with live bait or targeting walleyes. We are to the point where we will settle with catch and release on the open water. The only reason that this happens is because the managers of the lake need to stay under the low quota.
We’ve come a long way from the days of over harvesting walleyes and then riding out a couple of slow fishing years until the population rebounds. The boom and bust cycle was consistent about every five years. As the population of the lake dropped, it gave a chance for the baitfish/forage to mature and reproduce.
But the lake has changed in the last 20 years and not for the better in some ways. We have some invasive species in the lake (like many other lakes) and we are experiencing much clearer water on average. The lowest end of the food chain is suffering for it, and the ladder of energy that goes up to the next predator is delivering less. Simple terms, plankton is the target for invasive species such as zebra mussels, and plankton is eaten by baby fish. Baby fish are eaten by more mature fish and so on. Less plankton equals less food for the forage.
Forage in the lake has always dictated the bite for walleyes. No baitfish, they bite like crazy. Lots of baitfish, and it’s very slow fishing walleyes.
So why have we had such a tremendous bite the last few years? In my opinion, it is because we have a lake that is not producing enough energy to the bottom of the food chain and we have hungry walleyes, yet we continue to do the same thing over and over, under harvest walleyes. There I said it, take more walleyes from the lake to give the forage a chance to reset if you will. There is no reason that the quota could not be doubled to 300k for at least one year and allow a walleye to be kept by anglers all season. They have the data to show that it would not decimate the lake (far from it), and many are in agreement that we need to try something different.
In the meantime, did you all notice the amount of recreational visitors we have coming to the lake? The public accesses were more than busy during the weekend of the fourth; some were anglers. But the majority of the boats on the lake that weekend were there to simply be on the lake, and that’s a good thing for the entire area.
Tight slots, catch and release, lake closure, constant bad publicity from the media, and yet here we are enjoying the jewel of Minnesota for all she has to offer.
Guest columnist Steve Johnson is a local businessman and member of the Mille Lacs Fishery Advisory Committee, Eastside Township Board Chair, Mille Lacs County Planning Commission, Mille Lacs Tourism Treasurer.