Mille Lacs walleye kill approaching Minnesota quota

LAKE MILLE LACS, Minn. -- Minnesota officials are poised to close Lake Mille Lacs to walleye fishing next month, they announced Tuesday. That's never happened before. Caught off-guard by a hot early-July bite amid soaring water temperatures, the ...



LAKE MILLE LACS, Minn. -- Minnesota officials are poised to close Lake Mille Lacs to walleye fishing next month, they announced Tuesday.

That’s never happened before.

Caught off-guard by a hot early-July bite amid soaring water temperatures, the state is on track to break its yearly kill limit negotiated with American Indian bands. That could prompt the closure of walleye fishing as soon as Aug. 3, said Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.


“There is a very likely possibility that we will have to look at closing the walleye season,” Landwehr said in a conference call with reporters. Landwehr said the DNR has already notified resort owners of the issue, briefed Gov. Mark Dayton, and started the bureaucratic process that would allow the state to shut down walleye fishing in mid-season.

The popular lake’s legendary walleye population is at a 40-year low, and fisheries officials have struggled to pinpoint why and deal with the ramifications.

“This is a pretty painful time we’re in,” Landwehr said. “We’re gonna have to make some tough choices.”

Dayton has directed the agency to wait until kill estimates for the second half of July are completed before deciding. If the fishing turns sour, it’s possible the closure could be delayed, officials said, although none said they held out hope that the lake could stay open for the rest of the summer.

A prohibition on walleye fishing would not prohibit fishing for other species such as northern pike, smallmouth bass, perch and muskellunge. Landwehr and other officials emphasized that anglers, guides and resort-run fishing boats - known as launches - could operate much the same as they have, so long as walleyes aren’t the primary target and any walleyes hooked would be immediately released.

“It’s definitely not what we wanted,” said Terry McQuoid, owner of McQoid’s Inn in Isle, which operates three launches and arranges guides for guests. “I’ve talked with the DNR and, yep, we can do it. Our jumbo perch have been doing very well, and that’s most of what we’ve been keeping. I feel confident people will continue with that. And we do a lot of smallmouth fishing.”

Under a series of court rulings, the 207-square-mile lake in central Minnesota is co-managed by the DNR and eight bands of Chippewa Indians who retain treaty rights to take walleyes without regard for state fishing rules.

The allowable kill for non-Indians is 28,600 pounds this year, and the state was within 3,000 pounds of reaching it July 15 - and on pace to break it before July 31, said Don Pereira, the DNR’s head of fisheries.


That surprised Pereira and other fisheries officials, who had instituted a strict one-walleye daily limit this summer in an attempt to stay below the quota. Pereira said the agency believed there was only a 20 percent chance of exceeding the quota before Jan. 1, 2016.

The surprise is the result of better-than-usual late-June and early-July fishing, an unexpected crush of fishing pressure around the Fourth of July, and hot air and water temperatures that lead to fish being killed even when they’re released back in the lake, a phenomenon known as “hooking mortality,” Pereira said.

As a result, the DNR estimates that in the first two weeks of July, anglers kept about 2,000 pounds of walleyes for the frying pan, and an additional 10,000 pounds died from hooking mortality.

Those numbers exceeded the kill rate for June, a flip-flop of normal walleye fishing. It’s only the third time that’s happened since the DNR began bi-weekly monitoring of angler catches 30 years ago, he said.

“This is extremely puzzling,” Pereira said.

The Indian bands remain below their limit and are expected to stay below it, said Charlie Rasmussen, spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents the bands.

So far this year, tribal members have killed 10,140 pounds, nearly all between ice-out and the May 9 Minnesota fishing opener. Unlike prior years when nets were the primary method, Rasmussen said this year the majority of the tribal kill was by open-water spearing.

For years, the quota has risen and fallen, although the trend has been sharply down in recent years, from 411,500 pounds in 2010 to 42,900 pounds last year. The high point was 1992, when anglers could take 1.2 million pounds.


Scientists aren’t certain what’s happening with the lake, which has been and continues to be the subject of several studies. They know the fundamental problem is young walleye not surviving to adulthood. Mostly, they’re being eaten by larger walleyes.

Evidence is increasingly pointing to a combination of factors that have led to cleaner, clearer, less-fertile water that is less hospitable to walleye than when the lake was murkier from high-nutrient runoff.

Tribal netting returned to the lake in 1998. Scientists have repeatedly said the tribal take is too small - smaller than the sport-fishing take - to be the cause of the walleye travails.

The main hope for a recovery of Mille Lacs walleye is the generation of fish that hatched in 2013. Those fish have survived and “could be the most abundant of any we’ve ever seen on the lake,” said Pereira.

The 2013 fish are now between 13 inches and 16 inches, and providing much of the action for anglers. But they haven’t yet reached reproductive age.

Natural reproduction on Mille Lacs remains as high as any water in Minnesota. Each year, the lake produces about the same number of walleyes as the state’s entire network of hatcheries, and Mille Lacs walleyes are genetically distinct. As such, stocking isn’t seen as a viable option.

The short-term blueprint for the future involves protecting the relatively small 2013 fish, as well as the larger, older, egg-laying females.

The DNR estimates hooking mortality based on a formula developed during a two-year study from 2003-04 in which researchers observed fish caught and released by anglers to see how many survived.


Large fish and small fish are the most vulnerable, and those are the fish swimming in the lake right now.

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