Catch and release returning to Mille Lacs for open water season

Despite the highest winter walleye catch rate ever observed on Mille Lacs Lake, a decision was made to go with catch and release walleye fishing there for the upcoming open water season.

A closeup of a walleye
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has also taken steps of its own to address the walleye shortage. Band DNR Commissioner Susan Klapel said they remained committed to not allowing its members to gill net on the lake. Illustration.

Despite the highest winter walleye catch rate ever observed on Mille Lacs Lake, a decision was made to go with catch and release walleye fishing there for the upcoming open water season.

"It will be catch and release in some format," according to Brad Parsons Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Central Region fisheries manager.

Negotiations on how that season may look, taking into account the total pounds of walleye to be allocated, are still underway and should be determined within a week, Parsons said. Based on small increases in the fall lake assessment, there could be a small increase in overall allocations from last year.

"We saw some good positive things in the fall assessment last year and so we expect the number to be higher this year," Parsons said. "There was some consternation, and rightly so with the bands, about us going over the allocation last year and we are trying to figure out ways to provide as much fishing opportunities as we can without causing a conservation concern."

Last year, which was also catch and release during the open water season until the allocation cap was met and exceeded, the total walleye kill was just under 50,000 pounds, mostly due to hooking mortality, as anglers released about 362,000 walleye weighing 512,500 pounds, according to a report the DNR released at the most recent Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee meeting in Isle.


Dean Hanson, owner of Agate Bay Resort in Isle, said this is unusually late to not have those allocation numbers available. He considers those numbers very important as groups seek to plan for the busy season ahead.

Parsons said the DNR is uncomfortable increasing harvest on a lake that has basically only one strong year class moving forward, year 2013. That's why a walleye catch and release season was the decision again.

"We still have to be very careful because we don't know if we have a good year class coming up behind them," Parsons said.

Age 3 walleye are the only year class of that species currently being observed above median level, according to a summary report provided by the DNR. It also notes, an increase in mature male walleye biomass was likely due to the maturing 2013 year class fish, although biomass is still relatively low. Mature female biomass decreased to the lowest observed, due in large part to reduced condition of the fish as numbers have remained low, but relatively stable, over the last three years. Fall electro-fishing catch rates of young of the year walleye increased to almost twice median level at 209 per hour, whereas, age 1 walleye (2015 year class) were well below median at five per hour.

While netting and electro-fishing show numbers are still hurting in much of the walleye population, the fishing is undeniably good on the big lake.

"This winter was unbelievable, probably as good as I've seen it in 25 years," Hanson said. "Fishing has been unbelievable the last two years."

He recalled last summer two people could go out and catch 30-40 walleye a night and this winter that number could be reached over the weekend. He also notes that fish size has been across the spectrum. Strong numbers of northern and bass also continue to be strong near his launch area.

Comparing what he and other anglers are seeing to what the DNR is seeing in their assessments, Hanson said the practical perspective needs to be heard.


"Probably the biggest area of disagreement that we have between the committee and the DNR is the status of the fish population in the lake," Hanson said. "We've been criticized for not accepting all of the science, but when reality doesn't totally agree with science I don't think it's unfair to question science. ... We talk with people that are on the water everyday, so we do have a different perspective than them."

Hanson maintains the committee has a healthy relationship with the DNR and they have both learned from one another. He also believes things are turning around on the lake as people know they will catch many fish if they cast a line in Mille Lacs. He believes it would be even better from a business perspective if those coming to the fishery could take home and enjoy a walleye meal as well.

Hanson noted there is some concern among some committee members that if certain mature walleyes are not taken from the fishery, it can have a dangerous effect on the younger generations of walleye as they become a food source to the big walleyes. Hanson said that happened four years in a row on the lake in years past.

Parsons said while anglers will have to throw back walleyes in the upcoming season, they will at least get to enjoy an amazing bite.

"Based on how good fishing has been out there, we expect a good bite (for open water season)," Parsons said. "Fishing is going to be good."

When the open water may come is still unknown. Hanson said their resort pulled all houses off the lake during a particular warmup, but over the weekend he knew there was still about 24 inches of ice so many anglers were still going out. The walleye, pike, bass season ended Sunday.

Other notes from the fall assessment included strong numbers of large northern pike, smallmouth bass and tullibee were observed, along with a continued low catch rate of perch.

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