UPDATE: Catch-and-release only, 21-day July closure in store for summer Mille Lacs Lake walleye fishing

Catch-and-release only regulations needed to rebuild Mille Lacs Lake's walleye population will again be in effect when anglers hit the water on Saturday, May 13. The 2017 walleye season on Mille Lacs is scheduled to run through Monday, Sept. 4.

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An angler holds a good-sized walleye caught on Mille Lacs Lake in July 2013. (News Tribune file photo)

Catch-and-release only regulations needed to rebuild Mille Lacs Lake's walleye population will again be in effect when anglers hit the water on Saturday, May 13. The 2017 walleye season on Mille Lacs is scheduled to run through Monday, Sept. 4.

"Our goal is to have the longest fishing season possible while ensuring the conservation of the lake's future walleye spawning stock," said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr in a news release. "We understand catch and release is a difficult option for anglers who enjoy a fish meal, but we are using everything in our management toolbox to ensure a healthy and plentiful walleye population for future fishing seasons."

In addition to the catch-and-release regulation, and to help keep the walleye season open on Mille Lacs through Labor Day, the lake will have a 21-day walleye fishing closure from Friday, July 7 to July 27. During that 21-day period, anglers can fish for all other species in Mille Lacs Lake including bass, muskies and northerns but only with artificial bait and lures.

Don Pereira, DNR fisheries section chief, said allowing the use of live bait would make it too easy for offenders targeting walleye to argue that they were actually targeting another game fish, such as perch, during the closure.

An exception exists for anglers targeting northern pike and muskellunge only, and who don't possess walleye gear. Those anglers may possess and use live sucker minnows longer than 8 inches when fishing.


The decision to have a 21-day closure period during the walleye season was made after a successful winter season on Mille Lacs drove walleye harvest higher than expected.

"Ice anglers fished more on Mille Lacs in 2017 and caught more and larger walleye than expected," said Pereira, in a news release. "As a result, ice fishing this winter accounted for about one-third of the total amount of walleye state anglers can harvest from Mille Lacs in 2017."

Regulation decisions also were aided by several meetings and consultations with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee. Topics discussed between DNR staff and committee members included catch-and-release only restrictions, season dates, live bait restrictions, and the reason and timing of a temporary summer closure.

According to Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee member and owner of Johnson's Portside Bait & Tackle, Steven Johnson, regardless of the season changes going into place, nature remains in control of what will happen on Mille Lacs Lake. Johnson said in an email preserving the biggest year class (2013) and the largest fish by slot fishing is "manipulating the resource with unknown effects."

Johnson believes a very conservative limit of one walleye left in place for five years "will not deplete the lake of walleyes and will give some peace to the area, while allowing the anglers and the Bands to enjoy the resources without the constant black cloud looming," he said by email.


The tendency for caught fish to die after being released is called hooking mortality, which increases as water temperatures warm. During the last two weeks of July 2016 alone, hooking mortality accounted for more than half of the state's walleye harvest allocation for the entire open water season.

"The plan is for this closure to coincide with the hottest part of the summer when released fish are vulnerable to stress," Pereira explained in the release. "Warm water combined with July's higher fishing pressure means that more fish die-even those that are caught and returned to the water.


"These measures will extend the Mille Lacs walleye season as long as possible this summer and protect the younger walleye the lake needs to rebuild its population," Pereira said.

The state's 2017 walleye allocation is 44,800 pounds. However, during discussions, state and Ojibwe tribal leadership established that the 2017 walleye season will remain open through 12:01 a.m., Sept. 5, provided the state harvest doesn't exceed a conservation cap of 55,800.

Additionally, state and tribal leadership agreed to return to an overage system, through which each party will be required to deduct any harvest above its allocation from a future year's allocation.

Pereira explained that allocation negotiations between the state and the tribal bands starts at 50-50. Since the safe harvest levels of walleye are so restricted on Mille Lacs Lake, Pereira said the tribal bands voluntarily lowered their numbers. The band was uncomfortable with a total harvest of 90,000 pounds, Pereira said.

"Our assessment, we thought that 90,000 pounds would pose minimal conservation risks to the future productivity of population to spawn and they (the tribal bands) weren't quite there."

The band prefered to set the safe harvest level at 64,000 pounds and they declared 30 percent of that number, which allowed the state to claim the remaining 70 percent, which translates to roughly 45,000 pounds or 50 percent of the state's desired safe harvest level.

"Our next milestone for success is to observe another abundant year class of walleye," Pereira said in a new release. "We need more than one year when a lot of walleye hatch. What we need to see is large numbers of walleyes surviving beyond the first year to add more spawning fish to the population. We've not seen that yet."

This year's total walleye harvest allocation is up from last year's total, which was 40,000 pounds-28,600 for state-licensed anglers and 11,400 for tribal fishing. This year the state can reel in nearly 45,000 pounds and the tribes about 19,000 pounds.


Pereira said the DNR is committed to maintaining the Mille Lacs area as a premier fishing destination. He said the agency is conducting a comprehensive review of its data-collecting methods in order to ensure the most accurate information possible is being used. For example, Michigan State University fisheries experts are now reviewing the agency's creel survey methods.

More information about Mille Lacs, ongoing DNR management and research, and area recreation opportunities is available on the DNR website at

Brainerd Dispatch community editor Michael Johnson contributed to this article.

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Mille Lacs Lake fishing guide Steve Fellegy holds a 26-inch walleye taken on his boat Tuesday, July 9, 2013, while fishing mud flats at the north end of the lake. Although fishing has been good on Mille Lacs, last fall's survey of walleyes was the lowest in the past 40 years. (Sam Cook/Duluth News Tribune)

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