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Catch and release only for Mille Lacs walleye this summer, DNR announces

Anglers looking for walleye on Mille Lacs Lake must use artificial bait and immediately release all walleye caught during this year's summer season, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Monday.

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"A catch-and-release walleye season allows us to protect future spawners, yet acknowledges the desire that fishing remain open," said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, in a news release. "Not allowing harvest is a difficult decision, but it provides our best option." Forum News Service Photo

Anglers looking for walleye on Mille Lacs Lake must use artificial bait and immediately release all walleye caught during this year's summer season, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Monday.

The season opens May 14.

"A catch-and-release walleye season allows us to protect future spawners, yet acknowledges the desire that fishing remain open," said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, in a news release. "Not allowing harvest is a difficult decision, but it provides our best option."

Walleye fishing on the lake was shut down last August when state anglers went over their 28,600 pound limit. Fishing didn't reopen until Dec. 1.

Two members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, a citizens' input committee formed by the DNR after the uproar following the temporary closure of the lake in 2015, were present for a press conference call Monday. Since last October, the DNR has been meeting publicly with the committee to discuss possible regulations and detail how it gets its fishing data.

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Tony Roach, fishing guide and co-chair of the committee, said the regulations satisfied the committee's goal of keeping the lake open for business.

"I'm happy the DNR is focused on keeping the fishery open, that was the main goal," he said.

"The fishing was out of this world this winter, it's going to carry over into the summer."

Tina Chapman of Chapman's Mille Lacs Resort & Guide Service and local liaison to Explore Minnesota Tourism was colder on the regulations.

"The regulations are what they are," she said. "Everyone needs to understand that the lake hasn't crashed and the walleyes haven't disappeared. This is just a step towards helping the walleye fishery improve."

Pereira said the DNR "certainly" anticipated flak for the decision and that it would be naive to expect otherwise.

"We really want people to focus on the positives, and the fact that it's still a fantastic fishing destination, and also a great recreation destination as well," he said.

The Associated Press' Kyle Potter reported that in response to the announcement, Minnesota Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, vowed to write a bill to force the DNR to allow taking walleye on the lake, with a 2-fish limit and live bait allowed.

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Pereira said the DNR's own regulations were "reasonable yet cautious response based on in-depth analysis and citizen input from the Mille Lacs Advisory Committee."

The DNR's release said the 2016 limit, established by the "Technical Committee" comprised of the DNR and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, is 40,000 pounds, with 28,600 allocated to state anglers and 11,400 to tribal members.

"Allowing fishing beyond those limits puts the walleye population at risk and a federal court decision requires that walleye fishing be suspended," the release said.

"The possibility of closing Mille Lacs to walleye fishing is greater this year than it was last," Pereira said. "Even with our catch-and-release approach, the risk remains considerable."

There's still a possibility that state anglers can go over their cumulative limit even if the season is catch and release and anglers don't intentionally kill fish through harvest.

Pereira said during the news conference the prohibition on live bait was intended to reduce hooking mortality, or the inadvertent killing of fish. Fish are more likely to get hooked on the mouth with artificial bait, and the hook is easier to remove.

During the press conference call, Pereira repeatedly declined to give a numerical probability of whether the season would close anyway, saying it wouldn't be "informative" to release the information. However, he did say the artifical-only regulation reduces hooking mortality by roughly half.

According to the DNR's probability model in documents updated in February, assuming reduction to 55 percent of current hooking mortality, last year's temperature patterns, and average angler effort patterns, the risk of shutdown is far less than if there were no reduction in hooking mortality, but it's still present.

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If 1,000,000 angler hours are expended on the lake, there is a 9 percent chance of of a shutdown by July 1, a 17 percent chance by July 15, and a 30 percent chance by Aug. 1, according to the DNR model.

Data for catch and release only assuming 2015 temperature and 2015 effort patterns were not available.

 

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

Related Topics: FISHING
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