After three years of stringent catch and release regulations, anglers hounding walleye on Mille Lacs Lake have caught a breather-per the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, anglers will be allowed to keep one walleye between 21 and 23 inches or one walleye over 28 inches from May 11 to May 31 this year.
This decision, in part, stems from positive news. According to the results of the 2018 population estimate by the Minnesota DNR, the walleye population for fish 14 inches and longer numbered in the ballpark of 727,000. These estimates place the population significantly higher from estimates in 2013 and 2014, both of which hovered around 250,000 fish.
It's not exactly opening the floodgates. Catch and release remains in effect the rest of the year-and DNR officials have cautiously noted the walleye population remains vulnerable in some regards-but loosening regulations in Mille Lacs Lake is a welcome sign nonetheless, said local politicos monitoring the issue.
Whether or not this will help local economies, or be indicative of a progressing trend, remains to be seen. For many businesses on the lakeshore, how these fisheries are harvested and the stakes attached could be a matter of sink or swim.
Back in late July, Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison, spoke critically of the lake's environmental co-management system-responsibilities and authority shared by tribal authorities with state government agencies-as it was originally conceptualized in 1999. She pointed to the issue in terms of its economic impact on communities by the lakeshore.
"There's over 60 businesses gone around the lake (since 1999)-eight just in my 2 miles of the lake on the west side," Eno said at the time. "We have no workers because there are no businesses and no thriving economy. ... We know the economy sucks. We know the ice cream guy suffers, we know the sub sandwich guy suffers, it trickles down. We know the schools are suffering. We know the churches are suffering."
This, Eno and other lakeshore property owners said, resulted from a misuse of government authority-first manifested in 1999 when the co-management system was established favoring tribal communities over property owners; then repeatedly through the years with draconian regulations for fishing allotments, catch-and-release restrictions, live bait bans and other bureaucratic oversteps gradually suffocating businesses on the lake, one by one.
Local elected officials-including state Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, as well as state Sens. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point-gave their thoughts on the regulation changes.
State Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, did not return repeated requests for comment. Heintzeman declined to conduct a phone interview and opted to communicate via email.
While many anglers are fine with catch-and-release programs because they're more interested in the sport of fishing over harvesting fish themselves, this often leaves people who enjoy fishing, cooking and eating walleye at a disadvantage, Gazelka said.
As such, he noted, loosening fishery restrictions-even if it only means a few fish in the scheme of things-is a boon for environmental tourism, as well as related businesses like resorts and bait shops on the water.
"Absolutely, it's good news," Gazelka said during a phone interview. "Certainly, some of the resorts have struggled with the fishing situations over the last couple of years. This is a good step."
While expressing optimism, Heintzeman said activities on the lake warrants scrutiny and supervision going forward.
"It will certainly help the local economy if resorter's clients are at least allowed to keep something when visiting the area," Heintzeman stated. "There's more evidence supporting the fisheries ability to support this change and I hope all involved monitor the situation closely as we move forward."
Ruud-who has been allowed to observe meetings between tribal authorities and the Minnesota DNR-said the regulation changes are evidence that the long-term co-management plan is working as it was intended.
"I think it shows the recovery of the lake," Ruud told the Dispatch via phone. "I'm really excited we get to have this period of time where we get to catch walleye. It's a long way from when we couldn't keep any."
However, she advised some caution and said businesses along the lake have to diversify and lean on additional forms of revenue associated with lake life-for example, bass fishing, golfing, swimming and other beach activities, watercraft, all-terrain vehicles, among others-in order to thrive.
"We are never going to go back to where we were before with walleye fishing on Lake MIlle Lacs," she noted. "It's just not going to happen. ... They have so many other things going for them, if they would just move forward and send out that positive message about how great everything in Lake Mille Lacs is, I think everybody would be better off."
"It's gonna help, it's not the ultimate solution," said Lueck, who lauded the change, but added he'd be more in favor of allowing walleyes to be taken year-round, versus the short period in May.
He noted it's a significant improvement over prior years which were strictly catch and release year-round, or years where the fishers were closed down altogether.
"It's not what everybody wanted to hear," Lueck said. "But at least we're moving in a positive direction as opposed to previous seasons. Hopefully, that's behind us for good."