Steve Johnson

The simple answer is starting December 1, you can harvest one walleye from 21 inches to 23 inches until February 28, 2021.

The long answer is as follows:

Unless the current management agreement changes, the MnDNR will be hard pressed to allow a one fish all season harvest. The reason behind this is the rule of supply and demand. We have more demand than the current co-management agreement can supply.

Is this because Mille Lacs is in poor shape? No, because it’s not. According to my sources and the data, Mille Lacs is right now in very good shape (almost too good).

Is this because the Mille Lacs ecosystem is broken? No, because it’s not. There was a small stretch from 2008-2012 where we did not have a good year class of walleyes. Since 2013, we have had normal to above normal year class production.

So why the supply problem?

Mille Lacs historically used harvest as a tool for management, meaning that we would harvest walleye annually (250k - 400k pounds now at 150k) to thin the population and that in turn would help to balance out the ratio of predators to prey. When the lake had fewer predators, it would produce and maintain a good forage supply. It was an ebb and flow that worked for decades.

That entire amount of harvest was determined after the season was over, and the data was collected and processed. There was no quota hard line number to stay under and certainly no penalty for going over.

That has all changed after the 1999 Supreme Court decision that recognizes the eight Bands’ right to harvest. Now that harvest of walleyes is split between two entities: the native and the non-native. It is almost a 50/50 split, and with that ratio in place coupled with the ultra-conservative management, we will never see a season-long harvest again. Can this change? I’m glad you asked.

Yes, change the system so it can benefit both sides to their actual needs.

Clearly the non-Native Anerican side does not need it for subsistence, but it can claim that it is an economic driver for the area that benefits both sides tremendously in jobs, et cetera. Some of the non-Native Anericans have adapted to catch and release and thoroughly enjoy their time on the water doing just that. But there are many non-natives that would appreciate a fish dinner occasionally, and that is just not allowed.

On the Native Anerican side, subsistence and culture are the claimed reason for the harvest.

The subsistence part of the equation can easily be replaced by another source from another area with a year-round delivery system directly benefiting whomever they choose. The logistics and cost can be negotiated and agreed upon.

The culture argument in my opinion is actually a neutral point as culture exists on both sides. That’s right. The 75-year-old non-Native Anerican that is waiting excitingly to take his great grandkids out on the water to show them what his grandfather showed him is just as culturally important as the Ojibwe claim on their side.

How to change it?

Step one is to determine what each side truly needs and see if the supply can be delivered without the removal of any rights or actions, meaning that the Bands can do what they’ve been doing but on a smaller scale and replace the pounds from another source.

Try something new that makes sense. Take a new observation approach to the management of the lake, and stop doing reactionary management when you hit a number.

If the MnDNR and GLIFWC can’t come up with a harvest number above 300,000 with the current system in place you will never see a year round one fish limit again.

Cooperative Management would be a nice change.

Guest columnist Steve Johnson is a local business owner, member of the Mille Lacs Fishery Advisory Committee, Eastside Township Board Chair, Mille Lacs County Planning Commission, and Mille Lacs Tourism Treasurer.

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