Mille Lacs: Safe harvest levels set; angling rules similar to 2013 anticipated

(Released January 31, 2014)

Walleye anglers on Mille Lacs Lake will likely see regulations similar to last year when the season opens May 10, based on the safe harvest level announced today by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The 2014 walleye safe harvest level is 60,000 pounds. Of this amount, 42,900 pounds is allocated to the state and 17,100 pounds is allocated to the eight Chippewa bands with 1837 Treaty harvest rights. These allocation amounts were recently agreed upon at a meeting of DNR and tribal natural resource leaders.

DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira said a limited harvest under the existing restrictive harvest slot, combined with potential additional more restrictive regulations, will provide the needed protection to the lake’s struggling walleye population. Under existing regulations, anglers are able to keep walleye only between 18- and 20-inches. All others must be immediately released. The possession limit is two, with only one longer than 28 inches.

“Is the walleye population where we want it? Absolutely not,” Pereira said, “but restrictive harvest opportunities this year will not impair the lake’s ability to produce future generations of walleye. Mille Lacs has and always will be a great fishing destination.”

Pereira said the conservative allocations – the lowest since cooperative treaty management of the lake began in 1997 – reflect biologists’ deep concern about the lake’s recent inability to produce large crops of young walleye, despite adequate spawning stock and excellent production of young-of-the-year, fingerling-sized fish. The lake has not produced a strong year class of walleye since 2008.

The Mille Lacs safe harvest level has ranged from a high of 600,000 pounds in 2006 to this year’s low of 60,000 pounds. Actual harvests, however, have been very low in some previous years. In 2003, for example, state anglers took only 66,492 pounds of walleye and similar situations occurred in 2004 and 2008.

“We have not yet finalized size or bag limit regulations for the 2014 fishing season and won’t until we confer further with citizens later in February,” Pereira said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to seek answers to the perplexing problem of young walleye survival and will also open our entire fisheries management books to a newly formed “blue ribbon” panel of nationally recognized fisheries experts.”

Pereira said the agency is exploring new ways to engage citizens this year because it will seek input on harvest reduction options in addition to walleye slot length and bag limit regulations. These options, such as an extended night fishing ban, would help to ensure the walleye safe harvest level is not exceeded.

“Nothing has been decided other than we need to have this discussion with anglers and affected interests,” Pereira said. “We want to identify a variety of regulatory options because regulations are how we manage harvest.”

In contrast to walleye, northern pike continue to increase in abundance, with record catches of young fish in the last two assessments. The total harvest cap will be increased for the coming fishing season to 100,000 pounds with equal allocation between the state and the bands. The DNR will also explore expanded angling opportunities for both pike and smallmouth bass.

Pereira also said Brad Parsons, the DNR’s central Minnesota regional fisheries manager and a long-time research biologist, has been assigned to lead the DNR’s efforts to turn the Mille Lacs walleye population around as quickly as possible, while minimizing negative impacts to the local community and economy. “Brad is a strong leader who brings a fresh set of eyes to this effort, as well as extensive walleye research and management experience,” Pereira said.

Final 2014 Mille Lacs open water fishing regulations will be announced in March.

Find more information on the DNR’s Mille Lacs Lake Web page.