Winter walleye

Mille Lacs safe walleye harvest level set; level same as last year

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sent out a press release announcing the 2020 Mille Lacs safe harvest level for walleye stating that the harvest level will be at 150,000 total pounds, the same as last year. This harvest level was established at a Jan. 22 meeting between the biologists for the eight Chippewa Bands that retain fishing rights under the terms of an 1837 Treaty and between the Minnesota DNR biologists.

State anglers (non-Band members) are allowed a total of 87,800 pounds of walleye, and the Bands are allowed a total of 62,200 pounds of walleye during the 2019-2020 ice fishing season and 2020 open-water fishing season.

DNR Fisheries Section Manager Brad Parsons, when asked what factors came into consideration when making the harvest level determination, said in a phone interview, “We look at everything from the gillnet catch which was down from last year slightly and modeling results which showed a slightly smaller population from last year. We also look at what’s coming up for recruitment, and we have a good 2017 year class. So it’s a mix of slight decreases and some recruitment coming up.”

With the unusual weather patterns this winter angling season, it was questioned whether walleye numbers would be lower than normal. Parsons responded, “From December to early January, the numbers were higher than last year’s harvest by about 2,500 pounds.” Parsons said the numbers are determined by creel surveys (surveys given to anglers coming off the lake), and the DNR will be gathering data from two more creel periods this winter until the winter walleye angling ends on Feb. 23.

Some have questioned how much of an advocate the DNR has been for the state anglers during the “secret meetings,” a term some use because MLFAC (Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee) and the public are not allowed. They question the amount of poundage that goes to the state anglers versus how much poundage that goes to the Band members.

When asked specifically if Parsons believes the DNR truly advocates for their own residents, he responded, “Yes, I do. We take into account things like forage and skinny fish and high catch rates. We advocated I think strongly for the same harvest level if not higher.”

The question was posed that if there is less forage, would it be beneficial to take more walleye out of the lake, which would in turn allow less competition and a larger quota of fish for harvest. Parsons said, “That’s one way of looking at it, but if we get a forage response this year the fish will fatten and be in better condition going into next year. There are two ways of looking at it–either reducing the number of fish out there competing for the forage or growing the fish that are already out there. At this point, it’s impossible to predict which one of these is a better outcome.”

With all things equal, it was asked why not error on the side of allowing more harvest for anglers. To that Parsons responded, “We did advocate for the anglers, but the protocol stipulated that we need to come to an agreement on a safe harvest level.”

This fall during a MLFAC meeting, Brian Nerbonne of the DNR fisheries said that he would like to not see a shut down of walleye fishing this year. Parsons was asked if he anticipates a shut down this year. He replied, “I honestly don’t know until we get winter fish results and see what the catch rates are in the winter. Catch rates in the winter tend to correlate well with catch rates in the open water season. Our goal remains to provide as much opportunity as possible.”

When asked about Gov. Walz’s involvement in the allowable harvest, Parsons responded, “We use the best available science that we have … the department is an executive branch, and we do share decisions. But that’s as far as I go, I report to the commissioner’s office.”

In regards to the conference call with MLFAC last week, something the DNR regularly does before publicly releasing crucial information about Mille Lacs Lake walleye fishing regulations, Parsons said, “I know this is tough for the people. I get that. I heard the frustration on the call yesterday; believe me. For people to say we don’t care about them is very unfair.”

When asked for a concluding statement, he said, “It seems like people are really enjoying the winter fishing, and we encourage people to go to the lake and catch some fish.”

 

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