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Predators turned protectors?

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The recovering walleye population on Lake Mille Lacs might get protection from a couple of unlikely fellow Mille Lacs inhabitants this opening weekend and through the 2014 open-water season.

While Mille Lacs walleyes have been on the mend for several years, they might be more susceptible to fishing pressure this opener than ever. Fortunately, the northern pike population is booming on Mille Lacs. And as the pike season also kicked off Saturday, the DNR hopes that more than tripling the bag limit for Mille Lacs pike will help take some of the heat off the highly sought walleyes on the lake.

And if that weren’t enough, Mille Lacs is throwing in its burgeoning bass population, too. Yes, because of the walleye situation on what for years was regarded as the premier walleye fishery in the state, the bass opener also will kick off Saturday — two weeks before the official bass opener in central Minnesota, but just on Mille Lacs.

“It’s a unique situation this year,” Tim Goeman, a DNR regional fisheries manager out of Grand Rapids, said of the early bass opener on the lake. “The limit is the same (a combination of six largemouth and smallmouth) and one over 18 inches. The bass population is really healthy out there.”

Mille Lacs has become a thriving bass fishery in recent years, particularly for smallmouths, “but there are some largemouths in some of the harbors. The numbers continue to go up,” Goeman said.

Add the increase in the pike bag limit — from three to 10 — and the tight keeper slot of 18-20 inches for walleyes might be a little less painful for anglers this year, and will likely go a long way toward the continued recovery of the walleye population on the lake.

According to the DNR, that increase in bag limit is reflective of what they are seeing with the pike population on Mille Lacs — there are more pike in the lake than anytime in the last 30 years and Mille Lacs pike grow much faster than anywhere else in central Minnesota.

“The pike grow real well,” Goeman said. “There’s a lot for them to eat — perch and cisco, in addition to all the minnows. A 3-year-old pike is about five to six inches bigger than anywhere else in central Minnesota. It’s pretty phenomenal. In the sample, we found pike over 40 inches. That’s trophy size. They (large pike) are out there. And pike out of cold water is good eating.

“For some, that (the increased bag limit) raises the eyebrows, but it also draws attention to the pike fishery there. Data shows very few people keep pike. So if even one person went out and brought back 10 pike ... It’s not a harm to the population and will help bolster the local economy while the walleye population is in recovery mode. It’s a real opportunity for anglers to take part in that fishery without risking damage to the population. That’s why there’s the liberal limits there. It’s capitalizing on the opportunity to take some of the pressure off the walleyes while they’re working on recovery.”

It wasn’t that many years ago that Leech Lake was in full-bore walleye recovery mode, too. In fact, the walleye population then on Leech was likely in far worse shape than today on Mille Lacs. And after several banner walleye years on Leech, the DNR is expecting the 2014 opener and season to be the best yet. As a result, an unusually relaxed slot limit will allow anglers to keep walleyes up to 20-inches long.

“We’re expecting a good season,” said Doug Schultz, DNR area fisheries supervisor out of Walker. “The population is above the longterm average of the last six years or so. That (the new slot limit) is a good indication the population is back.

“The new regulation is intended to provide additional harvest opportunity while continuing to protect most of the mature female walleye in the population. The Leech Lake Management Plan provides for relaxing the existing protected slot limit if spawning walleye numbers were met.”

The bag limit remains four walleyes, with one longer than 26 inches. And while limiting out probably won’t be a problem for most anglers, there still aren’t a lot of trophy walleyes in Leech. But that, too, could change in the next year or two as the walleye population in Leech continues to mature.

“The relaxed slot limit opens up a lot of harvest opportunities for the young population out there,” Schultz said, adding that there are a number of walleyes under 20 inches and plenty in the 24- to 26-inch range in the lake, which will make for a lot of fun for anglers. “A lot of these fish are less than six years old. This lake is really in a good spot.”