Regulations that will limit the harvest of walleye and potentially increase the harvest of northern pike and smallmouth bass will be implemented on Mille Lacs Lake this spring as part of a multi-year effort to rebuild the lake's legendary walleye population, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
When the walleye season opens May 11, anglers will be able to keep walleye only between 18- and 20-inches or longer than 28 inches. All others must be immediately released. The possession limit is two, with only one longer than 28 inches.
Last year, anglers could not keep walleye 17- to 28-inches in length. They could keep up for four walleye shorter than 17 inches, with one longer than 28 inches allowed.
"We want Mille Lacs to continue to be a world-class walleye fishing destination," said Dirk Peterson, DNR fisheries chief. "Currently, the size and structure of the walleye population isn't where we want it. We are committed to remedying the situation as quickly as possible through regulations that are designed to increase survival of the lake's younger and smaller walleye."
The agency is particularly interested in conserving the lake's large 2008 year-class of walleye because no strong year-class is coming up behind these fish despite ample spawning stock and good hatches of young fish. Fish in this year-class are 15- to 17-inches in length.
In addition to new walleye regulations, the lake's 27- to 40-inch protected slot regulation for northern pike will be narrowed to a 33- to 40-inch protected slot, with only one pike longer than 40 inches. The possession limit is three.
Similarly, the smallmouth bass bag limit and slot limit will be broadened to allow for more harvest. The new regulation is a 17- to 20-inch protected slot. The possession limit is six, with only one longer than 20 inches in possession. Previously, all smallmouth bass less than 21 inches had to be immediately released and the possession limit was one.
"The smallmouth bass and northern pike regulations are designed to protect smaller walleye until we have better information on what these predator species are eating," said Peterson. "We'll be starting a predator diet study this spring. Meanwhile, the regulations will allow anglers some additional non-walleye harvest opportunities while also retaining solid numbers of trophy-sized fish."
The new regulations aim to keep the total walleye kill below the combined state-tribal 2013 safe harvest level of 250,000 pounds. Fishing regulations may be adjusted if angler kill is expected to be either too high or lower than the anticipated. This year's safe harvest level is the lowest established since treaty management began in 1997.
Tom Jones, Mille Lacs Lake coordinator, said the agency modeled 33 different walleye regulations before determining the 18- to 20-inch harvest slot regulation was the best option for this angling season. "It protects males from the 2008 walleye year-class, it meets the goal of being small fish friendly, it allows anglers to keep a meal of fish, and given normal fishing conditions it should keep harvest within the state's allocation."
The DNR discussed a variety of potential regulations with the Mille Lacs Lake public input group during a Feb. 27 meeting and solicited email comments from the general public.
Jones said a 2-inch walleye harvest slot is not unprecedented on Mille Lacs, having been implemented in 2001, 2002 and 2007. He added the state's walleye harvest has been below this year's allocation level of 178,500 pounds four of the last 10 years and in 2005 the harvest was below 200,000 pounds.
The fundamental concern for fish managers is that not enough walleye are becoming big walleye because of increased mortality rates. A secondary concern is that mature male walleye numbers have decreased.
The lake is also becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable. This is due largely to changes in the aquatic community, including the presence of unwanted aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussel, spiny water flea and Eurasian watermilfoil.
These factors, plus a state and tribal harvest management strategy that focused largely on walleyes in the 14- to 18-inch range, all have contributed to a declining walleye population.
Jones said despite the declining walleye population, winter walleye fishing was good, which typically suggests good fishing in spring, too.
For more information about Mille Lacs Lake fisheries management, go to www.mndnr.gov/millelacslake.