MLFAC meeting

Minnesota DNR Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons and Mille Lacs Area Fisheries Supervisor Tom Heinrich.

The evening of Aug. 12 saw the members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee (MLFAC) meeting with the DNR for a discussion on the current state of Mille Lacs’ fisheries. The year’s walleye allocation is at 91 percent, the DNR stated. However, due to the previous year’s harvest coming in under allocation, the DNR was not yet projecting an overage that would need to be paid back. The meeting also saw discussion of hooking mortality rates as well as the DNR asking for recommendations on regulating non-treaty species.

Season Update

Speaking on the state of the current fishing season, Mille Lacs fisheries manager Tom Heinrich stated that the Mille Lacs fishery was at 91 percent of the seasonal allocation. “There’s a couple of reasons for that,” Heinrich added, “and one is we’ve had a summer of outstanding fishing.” Catch rates have been high throughout the season, he noted, as have water temperatures. This year’s regulations had allowed for anglers to keep one walleye between 21 and 23 inches or one over 28 inches between May 11 and 31. The remainder of the season has been catch-and-release.

Heinrich overviewed how water temperatures throughout the summer of impacted hooking mortality. In May, the water was around 50 degrees, and mortality was at less than 1 percent. By June, the temperatures rose to 66 degrees, and mortality rose to around 5 percent. Currently, with temperatures around 74 degrees, mortality sits at 11 percent. “All this combined gives us some overall pretty high walleye totals,” he said.

Twin Pines Resort owner Bill Eno responded to Heinrich, “We had too low of [an allocation] this year. That’s what’s causing the problem. And we told you it would cause a problem … It’s a self-created problem–period. We don’t really care about [those numbers]. What we care about is our livelihoods, our customers, and what to tell them now.” Eno blamed these safe allowable harvest levels on the “secret agreement,” in reference to the consensus agreement reached between the DNR and Mille Lacs Band on March of 2017. The agreement, which runs through 2020, determines the formula for calculating safe allowable harvest and the poundage to be paid back if the allocation is exceeded.

Elaborating on what the current season’s status meant for the remainder of the season, Heinrich said that though the lake was at 91 percent allocation, projections for the rest of the year did not show harvest exceeding both the allocation and the 10 percent overage cap. In a call following the meeting, Heinrich explained that since the harvest of the previous year had been approximately 10,000 pounds under, those pounds could be put forward towards the overage this year. He added there was “a little bit of ambiguity” between how the DNR and the Band were interpreting last year’s number which would need to be clarified. But as Heinrich understood it, the underage of last year could be used to cover this year’s overage.

Parsons noted that with this fall’s assessment, the DNR would get a clearer picture on not just the 2019 year class, but also the year classes for 2016, 2017 and 2018. “When the 2013 [year class was] the only game in town, that’s why we got super conservative,” Parsons said. “It doesn’t look like they are the only game in town anymore.” He added that the DNR had good hopes for these year classes.

Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee member and business owner Tina Chapman asked how soon the DNR would be able to communicate the upcoming harvest and whether there would be a last minute closure. Parson replied that the DNR would be working to communicate with the committee on a weekly basis. “The key is that we feel we have enough safe allowable harvest to get us through the rest of the season,” Parson said, “and we will be monitoring it and communicating with you.”

Parsons also commented on the consensus agreement, stating that in the future, the DNR would be pursuing a process that is more flexible. “We want to have the ability to say that if certain overages don’t have biological meaning, they shouldn’t be part of it. That would be our goal. That’s not going to change the fact that because of protocols and et cetera, we still need to set safe harvest levels and figure out the allocation under that.”

Hooking mortality

Another committee member and resort owner commented on the hooking mortality rates, describing them as “the biggest, most absurd thing … the first and foremost thing that shuts us down every year.” He questioned the accuracy of the data, stating that launch boats should be plowing through corpses if the lake was 16,000 pounds of hooking mortality. “There’s a million holes to be shot through that mortality study,” He said. “And there is absolutely no doubt that everything is used against us to the highest degree.”

Parsons agreed that there was variability in the estimates and that it was tough to say what was going on to the pound. In the phone conversation that followed the meeting, Heinrich added, “The data is what the data is. When people talk about data, that’s a statistical term. When the MLFAC members say the numbers are inaccurate, they are saying our mortality estimates are higher than they should be.”

Later in the meeting, the same resort owner again asked Parsons if hooking mortality would be addressed, given it was a significant factor in closing the lake. Parsons replied, “I don’t see it changing anytime real soon. I’ll be blunt.”

Survey data

Speaking on how the DNR was planning to manage the state portion of the Mille Lacs fishery, Heinrich cited data that had been collected from anglers alongside the creel survey (a survey given to anglers to analyze data on fish and to get an idea of the fishing quality and recreational pressure a lake has been subject to). These surveys showed that harvest is an important aspect of the season for anglers. However, he added that the data showed anglers preferred being able to fish in the later warmer months of the season, even if it meant a smaller harvest for the season overall.

He also brought forward data collected from an online survey, which garnered around 680 responses over a four-week period. When it came to primary species being targeted by anglers on the lake, 84 percent said walleye, 8 percent said smallmouths and 5 percent said muskies. Of those surveyed, 11 percent said they used to fish Mille Lacs but no longer do.

Heinrich said that from the data, the DNR learned that harvest was obviously important. He added that respondents showed a slight preference for catching many fish over keeping a few. There was also a preference for more fish being caught versus bigger fish being caught.

Pikes and smallmouth bass

The meeting’s facilitator, Kelly Wilder with the DNR, explained that the night’s meeting aimed to focus on management of non-treaty species, noting that the scope and importance of discussing walleye warranted its own discussion at a future meeting.

“One of the species we have the most flexibility with,” Heinrich observed, “is northern pike.” He added that the state and the Band both estimate the northern pike population is fairly robust. Survey results showed that pike anglers came to Mille Lacs for its “quality size structure.” As Heinrich put it, “In other words, we have big fish.”

The question of whether northern pike regulations need to be retooled was posed to Heinrich. He replied that he would like to see changes to the regulations and that there was dissatisfaction with the current system. In his later communication with the Messenger, Heinrich stated he suspected the current regulation requiring the harvest of two pikes under 30 inches before taking one over 30 was not popular with anyone, even within the DNR. While it would depend on the feedback they received, he said, he envisioned something along the lines of just a 34 to 40 inch protected slot being implemented in the future.

The issue of smallmouth bass fishing sparked some discussion between MLFAC members. Eno stated, “There’s really no shortage of smallmouths at this point. All the local alliances and et cetera want to keep it all trophies because this is their playground.” He continued that focus should be placed on the walleye because that’s where the problem is. Another MLFAC member disagreed, stating that committee was supposed to manage the whole of the Mille Lacs fishery, not just walleye. Following this conversation, Heinrich said that the DNR would be approaching the Smallmouth Bass Alliance based on the meeting’s general feedback as well.

The Aug. 12 meeting saw a broad range of topics discussed with many eyes turned towards the expiration of the consensus agreement in 2020. Heinrich noted that there would need to be some sort of management plan between the Band and the DNR going into the future. However, observing the dissatisfaction MLFAC expressed over their previous lack of input, Heinrich added, “Their our public input group, our sounding board. They should be involved, of course.”

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