Steve Johnson

For years I’ve been saying, “Mille Lacs Lake is the only place in the world where great fishing can be a problem.”

I have been involved in and aware of the management of Mille Lacs Lake since the late ’80s, and I continue to be today.

Our history here started with my late father, Mel Johnson, fishing Mille Lacs in the ’50s, a family cabin starting in 1972, and I have been a business owner here for over 35 years. I am also a current member of the Mille Lacs Lake Fisheries Advisory Council (MLFAC ). I hold an AA degree in Natural Resource Technology, so I understand the data and the language used.

Myself and numerous other members of MLFAC have a vast history of knowledge and observations to share (and we have) that go back to the ’60s. We have seen the natural cycle on this lake numerous times; about every 10 years, give or take, the lake will purge itself and get its population back into balance. Usually this would always include some harvest by anglers to reduce the population of walleyes and enhance the local economy.

Now the approach appears to be to conserve as many predators (walleye, northern pike, muskie and smallmouth) as possible and set unattainable and arbitrary goals that seem to do more harm than good.

I personally have never seen the lake so out of balance with an abundance of predators and lack of prey. Since the late ’90s, the management of the lake has changed, and in my opinion, not for the better. This has been proven once again as we are closed to walleye fishing for the month of July, and the area has endured many other unpopular and unnecessary restrictions in the recent past.

Two entities manage the lake: the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lake Indian Fisheries and Wildlife Commission. This shared management idea, as I understand, was developed after the courts ruled that the eight Chippewa/Ojibwe tribes of Minnesota and Wisconsin had the right to harvest under their own set of rules. Still in question is who is in charge and makes the final call.

Some aspects of the agreement work, like the biologists that get to share information between the two agencies and the federal funding that continues to flow into the system to do more studies. This management agreement has certainly not put the lake in a healthy state. Some would argue that point because the lake is full of walleyes, and the bite is hot.

So what’s the problem? Answer: Balance.

The reason for the July shutdown? Simple – during negotiations this year, a very low harvest quota was negotiated and accepted by the Minnesota DNR, and in order to make it work and re-open for the fall season, the shutdown for 30 days was the lesser of two evils. The other option was to have no midsummer closure and to shut down indefinitely once the quota was reached. This second option made a fall season very unlikely.

Our tourist industry was derived from the lake and its fishing. Before you say, “there’s more to the area than fishing, and businesses should adapt to changing times,” let me say this: the Mille Lacs Tourism Board has done a great job in promoting the area’s other assets and activities, and it is working. The lake area has thousands of visitors doing many different things other than fishing: enjoying time with friends and family, ATVing, shopping, et cetera.

However, fishing on the jewel of Minnesota remains at the top of the activity list for our visitors.

Unfortunately/fortunately, myself and others see a drastic adjustment coming from Mother Nature, and it may not be pretty. The imbalance of predator/prey artificially created through slots and harvest restrictions may correct itself soon. The abundant population of bigger, older walleyes may be the first to go. The fish that were being caught looked thin and were certainly not in short supply before July 1. The hot bite has been non-stop and basically lake wide.

Many of us are keenly aware of the data being collected on the lake and how to interpret it. We also understand that it is standard accepted data collection practices, but that data, some of which can have a 30% margin of error, is being applied to a fishery with a full stop accuracy approach. The margin of error only works on the data being applied, not the final quota tally coming out.

There have been ideas and proposals presented by MLFAC and myself, and in a perfect world some of them would be considered, but I’m becoming convinced that MLFAC has become a weak sounding board and little else.

Some of those ideas include:

• A drastic draw down of the lake’s predators (50%) to allow the forage base to re-establish itself.

• A compromise and/or buyout that allows the Tribes to exercise their rights, just at a lower amount and different harvest timing. This would include supplying their elders with monthly deliveries of walleye to their door.

• Some changes to the locations of Minnesota DNR fall assessment nets that may be more accurate and reflect the changes in the lake (i.e. water clarity).

• A more transparent process of management decision making.

• A long-term management approach, say five years, that does not include shutdowns and would take an observation approach instead of annual knee jerk regulations, only consider shutting down if the fishery is in imminent danger of collapse.

When the season re-opens for catch and release on Aug. 1 (and it will), I suspect those walleyes will be just as hungry as last month. And that, my friends, is a problem.

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.

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