Editor’s note: Last week, the Messenger addressed what many resorts and guide services are feeling after the DNR shut down the lake for walleye fishing on Sept. 6 because of reaching angler quota. This week’s edition will look at why people want to come to Mille Lacs Lake, what the DNR has to say in response, and what locals would like to see from the DNR moving forward.
Why do you fish Mille Lacs Lake?
A conversation starter was posted recently on social media asking, “Serious question–why do you fish Mille Lacs Lake?” with almost 200 people piping in. The respondents said they fished for the trophy walleye and that “it’s the best lake in the country.” Others came to Mille Lacs for the “diversity in catching lots of fish … perch, bass, northern, and walleye.” Others say they just love the lake and have made family memories here.
It’s clear from the comments that there is something very magical about Mille Lacs. But the reality is, and there’s no getting around it, the lake is known primarily for its walleye, with the evolution of the industry headed toward bass and other species.
But moving forward, the DNR has tough decisions to make that will affect those who come up here for the walleye fishing.
What does the DNR say?
The DNR Aug. 26 press release announcing the walleye fishing closure on Sept. 6 said that because of angling
pressure and high walleye catch rates, the closure was necessary to stay within the estimated limits and that high hooking mortality occurred in July and August when water temperatures were warm.
Proceeding with caution is something Brad Parsons, DNR fisheries section chief, says is important to ensure continued recovery of the lake’s walleye population.
When asked about specific concerns from resort owners/guides, Parsons says, “The closure takes into account the number of walleye in the lake and the recruitment of fish coming up behind the adult walleye. It has been our conservative regulations that we’ve had over the last several years that has made the population what it is right now.”
He adds that they will now see what the 2013 class (of walleye born in that year) does. The restrictions were meant to protect that class, which is very strong and the only one we have had for several years. He says that both the 2016 and 2017 year classes are showing some promise, but until their study is completed this fall, they won’t know what the future holds for fishing walleye on Mille Lacs.
“There has been a lack of survival in age 2 or 3 or under, but good numbers of fish at age 0 or 1, and then they don’t make it,” Parsons says. “Understanding mortality of walleye is tricky business.”
Parsons empathizes with the local economy and adds that the fishing is really good now, the highest they’ve seen since 2014, he said. “Our goal is to provide as much opportunity as possible,” he adds.
Fall assessments will be conducted in September, says Parsons, and some are underway now. “We will look closely at that data and see where it takes us. But people went to the lake this year, and there were more of them. This is a positive step, and we’re trying to provide as much as possible.”
In response to hooking mortality concerns, Parsons says, “I understand that perspective, but it’s a big lake and when you look at the pounds of fish spread over many, many days, it’s the best available science we have right now.”
Find more information from the DNR on Mille Lacs Lake, see mndnr.gov/millelacslake.
What resort owners/guides would like to see of the DNR moving forward
The State of Minnesota and Ojibwe tribal authorities with fishing rights on Mille Lacs Lake agreed on a 2019 safe harvest level of 87,800 pounds for state anglers and 62,200 pounds for tribal fishing.
As officials head into a new agreement, resort owners and fishing guides are asking for greater consideration when it comes to their livelihood and the Mille Lacs economy, as well as saying they are not seeing the dead walleye that the DNR’s hooking mortality rate (the estimated number of dead walleye from catch and release) would have produced.
Kevin McQuoid says he would like the DNR to have consistent regulation where people can look ahead and know when fishing will be open or if fish can be kept. “Something consistent throughout the year … especially as people travel around the country fishing different lakes, it’s always a challenge trying to keep up with what’s going on with the lake,” says McQuoid.
Though Tina Chapman says they have had a good summer and it is nowhere close to being as down as it was five or six years ago, she believes the co-management system, between the DNR and the Band, isn’t working and needs to have a good, hard examination. “We don’t know what the regulations are, so it’s hard for marketing. It’s hard to sell your business when you don’t know until the last minute. Most people are fairly good about it and are willing to accept what happens, but it still makes it hard to draw in customers,” says Chapman.
“You’re trying to put a not exact science into an exact formula, and we live and die by that. That’s the bad thing about the co-management: it’s an inexact science, and they’re using it as an exact science,” adds Chapman.
“It’s frustrating because it’s changing and you don’t know what to tell people. I feel like I’m being punished to keep one fish in the particular slot. If we didn’t have that, we would have had another 14,000 pounds and could have kept us open. Why couldn’t they have extended it two more days into the weekend?” questions Tim Potoczny.
Patrick Burch adds, “Stop managing on a quota system. This system at best is an inaccurate guess on how many fish they think die of mortality. It’s just not very accurate.”
“The lake is super healthy now and has been; it never was as bad as the DNR stated,” says fishing guide Tim Ajax. “The hooking mortality penalty is ridiculous. Our co-managed DNR claims that anglers killed 30 tons of walleyes this summer based on some creel data variables they have come up with to help enable this current walleye shutdown. There has been very little walleye fishing pressure since 2013. I and others don’t see the 60,000 pounds of dead fish in the course of a few weeks this past summer, let alone an entire open season. No one else saw the giant fish kill either. In the last five years, there are 50-plus days a year I fish. I may see one or two boats all day on the entire lake, and I know who they are. It’s really sad that our Mille Lacs community has to keep going through this.
Going forward, Ajax feels that the DNR co-management need to be more transparent and open with everyone about how this lake is managed. “The DNR lake meetings with our local input group are basically scripted before it even begins, in my opinion,” he says. “Our voice is never really heard up here. Let all the anglers of Minnesota and residents on or around Mille Lacs Lake understand the facts why this newest and hurtful walleye closure happened again. Everyone has the right to know the truth when one or more governments are managing our livelihoods and fishing rights behind closed doors.”
Currently, he says, Mille Lacs Lake is plumb full of healthy walleyes of all year classes. “The best case scenario is all anglers share the same fishing rights within the same season across the board,” Ajax adds.
Come to Mille Lacs
Tina Chapman said that they’ve seen some improvement from last year and hope it continues. “We’re looking forward to next year as being just as good if not better. People should just come up and fish. There are lots of opportunities, and if they’re not as much into fishing, there are so many other things to do,” she says.
Kevin McQuoid adds that one nice thing about Mille Lacs Lake is that it is prime muskie fishing which has started now and will only get better for big muskies up until November. “Guys looking for a fish of a lifetime, this is the time of year for that,” he says. “There is still great smallmouth action this fall and big northerns. There is a great chance of a state record in the lake for a muskie. It’s a lake that has a number of different game fish and trophy fish. The lake is multifaceted with so many other things to do up here.”
To learn more about what Mille Lacs Lake has to offer, see https://millelacs.com.