The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries department held a public meeting on Tuesday, March 23 via interactive video to release their latest regulations which will set the course for the next year for the Mille Lacs fishery.
MnDNR Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons opened the meeting and welcomed those participating online.
Mille Lacs Lake Area Fisheries Supervisor Tom Heinrich introduced the management plan for the lake and said that it is designed to give people an understanding of issues that impact the lake, a general overview of how people would like the lake managed and how the DNR comes to their decisions. He added that management plans exist for all of the ten large lakes in Minnesota.
Heinrich said that information had been gathered for the last year during public meetings and via online input. Public input came from three public meetings and approximately 700 online responses, along with input from the Mille Lacs Fishery Advisory Committee (MLFAC) and creel survey. Heinrich stated that regulations also come from meeting with the eight Chippewa bands as per the 1837 Treaty in which hunting and fishing rights were restored to the tribes.
Environmental changes were first addressed. Heinrich said that in the 1990s, the water in Mille Lacs got much clearer which was a sign there were fewer nutrients determining how productive a lake is. He said it had much to do with the Clean Water Act and septic systems being brought up to code in cabins on Mille Lacs. In the early 2000s, zebra mussels entered the lake, Heinrich said, and ate much of the algae which is the base of the food chain. “Nothing eats zebra mussels,” noted Heinrich. “This reduced the plankton which the walleye rely on.” He added that spiny water fleas also affected the walleye population.
As for eelpout, warmer lake water impacted them as they tend to be intolerant of warm water. “They used to be abundant and are quite rare now,” said Heinrich.
Through the ’90s, the tribes, through the 1837 Treaty and U.S. Supreme Court decision, had their rights to hunt and fish become the law of the land. “One of the stipulations was the court decided that the state couldn’t determine how the tribes harvest fish,” said Heinrich. “Protocols were developed on how the state and tribes interact with each other. Once determined, it is divided between the tribes and state and the split is agreed on. The state gets more than half of the harvestable surplus. This year it was 150,000 pounds total and to state, 87,800 pounds and to the tribes, 62,200 pounds. Each side manages their own harvest.”
Goals, objectives and strategies
Trying to satisfy as many people as possible while monitoring the harvest, Heinrich said, is the goal. The feedback was that many are interested in just catching fish, and MLFAC expressed that they opposed a surprise closure.
For walleye, early-season walleye anglers on the lake will be able to keep one walleye 21-23 inches long or one longer than 28 inches. Summer will bring catch-and-release walleye fishing, with a mid-season closure, before the potential for a one-fish limit returns in the fall.
“Lower walleye harvest this winter is allowing us to offer some open-water walleye harvest this year,” said Parsons in a press release last week. “We’re glad Mille Lacs anglers will have the chance to keep a walleye on opening weekend and Memorial Day weekend — two of the most popular times to fish during the year. We also hope to be able to allow some harvest this fall.”
The one-fish walleye limit will be in place from Saturday, May 15, through Monday, May 31. Walleye fishing will be catch-and-release from Tuesday, June 1, through Wednesday, June 30. A two-week closure — implemented to reduce hooking mortality — will be in place from Thursday, July 1, through Thursday, July 15. Catch-and-release walleye fishing will resume on Friday, July 16, and continue through Wednesday, Sept. 15.
After opening weekend, fishing hours on the lake will be 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for all species. Beginning Saturday, June 5, muskellunge and northern pike anglers using artificial lures or sucker minnows longer than 8 inches can fish after 10 p.m.
The one-fish walleye limit is scheduled to resume Thursday, Sept. 16, through Tuesday, Nov. 30. During the late season, the DNR also will allow anglers to fish from 6 a.m. to midnight.
He explained that for muskies, the DNR will continue the same goal of providing high quality, trophy size structure, and for northern pike, they will maintain a harvest opportunity and trophy size structure. The management for smallmouth bass and yellow perch will remain as it has.
Public questions, discussion turns to muskies
Kelly Wilder, a policy and planning consultant for the DNR fisheries and wildlife division, moderated the public Q & A portion of the meeting.
One question focused on perch management in the lake with the questioner asking why the species is being monitored the same if they’re population is struggling. Heinrich said that keeping things simple and consistent throughout the state was one reason but the other reason was that they don’t know if the walleye angling harvest contributed to the decline in yellow perch. “Very few anglers harvest more than a couple perch at a time according to the creel survey,” said Heinrich.
The question of whether the DNR could ask the Bands to net in the fall instead of spring was brought up. DNR Regional Fisheries Manager Brian Nerbonne said that the Supreme Court decision says that the State cannot regulate the tribal harvest. “Those are the rules we’re playing with,” said Nerbonne. He said that the DNR feels the fry (juvenile fish) production has no effect on walleye down the road according to their studies, adding that they’ve looked at the stocked fry in the lake versus the wild fry and that the wild fry is ten times higher than fry in other lakes.
Another meeting participant asked whether the DNR felt the lake was within its carrying capacity (the number of organisms that an ecosystem can sustainably support). Heinrich stated that he felt walleye are close to carrying capacity, but that each species eats something different. Parsons added that based on population estimates, they believe there are more than a million walleye in the lake. “The idea that other species are more abundant than walleye in the lake is incorrect,” said Parsons.
Another participant thanked the DNR officials for recognizing the importance of fall trolling and extending the season.
The discussion then turned to muskies. One participant, Chris Jensen, asked why muskies aren’t being stocked as much as they had been in the past. “I would like to see a higher stocking rate for muskies,” he said.
Heinrich noted that they are seeing reduced productivity and that they felt adding an abundance of another large predator may not be wise, even though there isn’t a lot of direct competition with walleye.
Another participant said that Mille Lacs used to be one of the world’s best destinations for muskie fishing. “There used to be thousands of guide trips, and then we left,” he said. “I would say most of the muskie community is not happy with the management of muskie on the lake.”
Nerbone said that they haven’t heard a lot of feedback on muskie but that he was happy people are sharing their viewpoints now.
Relationship with the tribes
State Representative Sondra Erickson (Dist. 15A) thanked the DNR for hosting the forum and asked why the DNR makes a five-year plan instead of a two- to three-year plan. She also asked them to clarify why the DNR consults with the Bands but the Bands don’t appear to have to consult with the State.
Parsons replied, “Five years is a good time frame to let a generation of fish go through … and if something goes incredibly different in five years, our management has the ability to change. Regarding working with the tribes, there is a great deal of back and forth. They have a biologist that complements what we do. The modeling subcommittee is composed of state and tribal biologists. Both sides respect science and managing expectations of our clientele.” He reiterated that they’re not in the business of telling the tribes when to net and can only raise concerns when it comes to public health and safety. “We work very closely, and I value that relationship. It’s oftentimes we have a difference of opinion, but we have a good relationship. It’s definitely a collaboration.”
Nerbonne closed by thanking participants for their respectful conversation and encouraged people to fill out their survey which can be found on the DNR website on the Mille Lacs page. .