Catch and release only on Mille Lacs?
ISLE—Going to catch and release only for all or part of this summer's walleye season on Lake Mille Lacs seemed palatable to some members of a citizen's advisory committee Wednesday, if it meant avoiding another shutdown of the season.
The discussion of summer regulations came during a meeting of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee at Izaty's Resort. The Department of Natural Resources plans to finalize its regulations for the lake in early March.
The meeting began with a presentation of the DNR's estimates for how likely it would be for each of the regulation suggestions to result in an early shutdown of the walleye season when the total amount of walleye killed hits the red line of "allocation." A shutdown last year closed the walleye season by Aug. 3. The allocations are an agreement between the DNR and American Indian tribes that fish on the lake, designed to protect the long-term health of the walleye population.
The allocation for 2016 is 40,000 pounds total: 11,400 pounds for tribal fishing and 28,600 for the rest of the state.
In a newly designed computer model, the DNR accounted for starting population, population growth, "bite" or the likelihood of walleye biting, "hooking mortality" where walleye are accidentally killed by anglers while handling their catch, water temperature, and fishing that happened in the winter.
Average number of angling hours per year on Mille Lacs over the past decade is about 1,000,000.
Assuming 1,000,000 angler hours and water temperature and effort patterns that are similar to last year—the DNR's worst-case scenario—a harvest slot of 18-20 inches with a bag limit of 1 for the entire season would result in an 88 percent likelihood of hitting allocation limit by Aug. 1, and a 78 percent likelihood of hitting it by July 15. Advisory committee members saw this regulation as a no-go.
However, if hooking mortality is somehow reduced to 20 percent of the current rate—possibly by requiring artificial bait only—the likelihood of a shutdown is reduced. There would be a 58 percent likelihood of hitting allocation by Aug. 1 and a 44-percent chance of hitting it by July 15, under the worst-case scenario.
However, requiring artificial bait has its disadvantages in possibly discouraging anglers from fishing on Mille Lacs at all, advisory committee members said.
Professional guide Tony Roach said there would be about a 50-percent reduction in fishing if it went to artificial-only. He was skeptical of the connection between artificial bait and reduced hooking mortality, and said there wasn't enough data.
"I find it hard to accept," Dean Hanson of Agate Bay Resort said of the reduced fishing possibility. "I'm down enough."
Melissa Treml, a DNR scientist, said near the beginning of the meeting that the tables illustrated the chances of repercussions for a decision on Mille Lacs.
"This is where we get into people's tolerance of risk," Treml said.
Roach said catch and release allowed them to be open the longest and would allow the walleye population to recover.
"As a conservationist, I'm really looking forward to that situation happening," he said of the recovery.
A lot of people would still show up on Mille Lacs due to the high "bite," Roach said.
Roach said he had informally asked anglers and business owners and their take on the issue was united:
"Whatever it takes to stay open the longest and not have a closure," he said.
Catch-and-release for the entire season with last year's angler effort and temperature would reduce the risk of a shutdown to a 68 percent chance of hitting allocation by Aug. 1 and a 46 percent chance of hitting it by July 15, according to the DNR model.
Assuming average temperature and average effort patterns, the likelihood goes down further, to a 31 percent likelihood of hitting allocation by Aug. 1 and a 15 percent chance of hitting it by July 15.
Members of the committee and the audience also talked about the possibility of going back to the tribes to try and get them to approve a higher allocation, or guaranteeing no shutdown. DNR Fisheries chief Don Pereira responded by saying the decline in spawning fish meant a higher allocation would be dangerous.
Minnesota Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, suggested the DNR going back to the tribes to push for less tribal fishing, possibly a multi-year moratorium on tribal gill netting, because in her opinion it would be good public relations to show the DNR was making an effort.
Whether or not tribal gill netting is a factor in the walleye decline isn't known, but the public believes it is, she said.
The DNR has said previously that gill netting was not a cause of the decline.
Erickson also asked about regulations for individual tribal members fishing on Mille Lacs since she heard complaints from constituents that rules for tribal members were too liberal and thus unfair to the non-tribal anglers.
"I hear about it, every time there are tribal members on (fishing) launches," she said.
NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect that American Indian Tribes not commerically fish on the lake, per a Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe spokesperson.