New DNR Plan for Mille Lacs Lake

DNR NEWS – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                      Jan. 21, 2014

New DNR plan aims to get Mille Lacs Lake back on track
National review of management part of effort to boost walleye numbers

Unprecedented change is occurring at Mille Lacs Lake and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking unprecedented actions to address it.

The agency will convene a blue-ribbon panel of national fisheries experts to review past and current management practices as part of a new effort to increase the legendary lake’s walleye population as quickly as possible with minimal impact to the local community.

“We will have nationally recognized fisheries experts review our work and offer recommendations,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief. “We want the lake back on track. This is one strategy to do that.”

Panel members are: Drs. Jim Bence and Travis Brenden, Quantitative Fisheries Center at Michigan State University; Dr. Paul Venturelli, University of Minnesota; Dr. Nigel Lester, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the University of Toronto; and Dr. Lars Rudstam, Cornell University and Oneida Lake Field Station.

Mille Lacs, a 132,000-acre lake in central Minnesota, is long-favored by anglers due to its abundant walleye population. However, the walleye population has been in decline for a number of years. Pereira said a key problem is the vast majority of walleye that hatch do not survive to their second autumn in the lake.

He said that while the lake continues to have adequate walleye spawning stock and more than enough egg production and fry to repopulate the lake, the lake hasn’t produced a strong year-class of walleye since 2008.

To further help solve the problem, Pereira said the agency intends to contract with a nationally recognized fisheries expert to do an intensive review of the state’s fish tagging and fishing population estimates.

These reviews, combined with a new predator diet study to determine impacts on small walleye survival and fishing regulations that aim to protect young walleye, are all part of a systematic approach to improve walleye fishing. The diet study also includes winter sampling of predator fish under the ice.

The DNR acknowledges that state and tribal fisheries management has played a role in the decline but long-term solutions will involve better understanding an evolving system that now has clearer water, a variety of unwanted aquatic invasive species, growing walleye predator populations and decreasing prey populations, such as perch and tullibee.

Pereira said the problem of promising walleye year classes that disappear year after year is linked to “system change.” Change includes:

  • Increased water clarity: Water clarity has nearly doubled since the mid-1980s. Improvement began about 25 years after the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s and has trended sharply upward since zebra mussels were discovered in the lake in 2006. Improved water clarity has been linked to movement of young of the year walleye off-shore at smaller sizes, and may also have benefited sight-feeding fish that prey on walleye and perch.
  • Increased walleye predator populations: Northern pike and smallmouth bass populations have risen significantly since the early 1990s. In 2013, the northern pike population increased to the highest level ever observed. The 2013 smallmouth bass population was the second-highest ever recorded. Smallmouth bass populations have been on the increase throughout Minnesota and Canada.
  • Multiple aquatic invasive species: Once devoid of aquatic invasive species, Mille Lacs now contains zebra mussels, spiny water fleas, and Eurasian watermilfoil. While it’s unknown exactly what implications these infestations are having, it’s suspected the increase in milfoil is providing more ambush cover for northern pike. Also, water-filtering mussels are contributing to water clarity that allow more aquatic vegetation to grow at deeper depths and in more dense stands.
  • Changing zooplankton community: First detected in 2009, spiny water flea numbers have fluctuated but show no signs of declining. Spiny water fleas may be having a negative impact on the native zooplankton community by directly competing with small fish for food and altering the historic aquatic food chain.
  • Long-term changes in key forage species: The most prominent change is a decline in tullibee, likely the result of warmer water temperatures. A decline in tullibee is likely negatively affecting walleye in Mille Lacs, especially larger walleye, as walleye grow significantly faster when they are able to feed on this species because it is higher in calories than other prey species, including yellow perch.

“Clearly, Mille Lacs is undergoing system change,” Pereira said. “As we work to rebuild the walleye population these factors will influence management decisions.”

Pereira said the DNR is also exploring new and innovative ways to engage citizen input on future management decisions and will help support a new tourism marketing initiative that is being formed by the local community and Explore Minnesota Tourism.


  1. Dnr is “blaming” increased small mouth and pike activity but are reluctantly leaving out the fact that they brought muskies into a lake that they never should have. There is no way that northern pike eat walleye but muskie do not. Way to go mndnr! The true cause of invasive species in Minnesota waters. On top of that there will be a bunch of clowns killing off small mouth and pike because they think it will increase the walleye population. See it happening all over north eastern Minnesota.

    • Let see… muskies have been in the lake since the 1970’s and now they are the demise of the walleye population John Smith? Interesting… What are the estimated populations of said species and the overall impact? Are there less Pike and Smallmouth than muskie? How do Zebra muscles and spiny water fleas impact the main forage for walleye fry and year of the young? Did the slot allow too many walleye to thrive thus depleting the forage? Etc. Etc. Lets slow down and see what the study finds. At least they are taking action and looking in to this.

      • You want to play the lets see game we can play. Let’s see studies of Muskie diets include tullibee, one of their favorite the dnr put in a report on vermillion a few years ago, and spiny fish including perch. Hmmm walleye are in the perch family. Seeing as smallmouth and walleye eat similar food if the Muskie eat the walleye there is more grounds for smallmouth to grow… I do agree zebras play a role as we’ll but if you add a predator at the top of the food chain with no other predators he’s going to stay on top of the food chain. And the dnrs so called studies are just a play to keep payroll they’ve been doing studies for years on Lake Superior and other lakes and there is yet to be a solid run of coastal brook trout on the north shore since the 70’s.

  2. I like the quote….”The DNR acknowledges that tribal netting has played a role” But I didn’t see in this article the DNR was going to do something about it or alt least address this LONG running issue.
    Let face it as the lake warms, it will be creating an environment that doesn’t do the walleye any favors. Once the lake warms to a certain point the tullibee will go away and so will the walleye. Its awful hard fighting mother nature.
    Agree with Johns comments above…Musky not being addressed as a predator.
    Sure hope this panel comes up with some good ideas before the northern pike and smallmouth bass become sacrificial lambs. It would be ashamed to ruin a world class smallmouth bass fishery for a losing cause.

  3. Funny nothing mentioned about the Indians netting, spearing and increasing their harvest over the past few years. Until someone has the guts to stand up to them and don’t allow the netting nothing is going to change. I feel very sorry for the tax paying, hard working, law abiding businesses that rely on the lake for their future and for future generations to come. I think it is time to give the Indians a ultimatum, what means more to you the Casino’s or your rights to violate the one time best walleye fishery in MN by netting and spearing because your ancestors did this years ago. Funny how the Red Lake fishery is becoming so much better, I wonder why. I wonder if I will ever see the day when someone stands up for Tax Paying, Law Abiding, Hard Working, Willing to invest in MN citizens.

  4. If they insist on gillnetting there season should start when anglers start for the same reason don’t interfere with the spawn!!!!

  5. Why does the dnr not mention one word of a huge part of the problem. We are the ONLY lake being netted during the spawning season. The line are hands are tied is an out right lie. The United states supreme court recently ruled that each state is the sovereign of all waters within their boundarys as well as the land under these waters. Tribal nets are non discriminate and kill all fish in there path.

  6. I agree things need to be done. I am so sick of hearing all the DNR lame excuses for what is happening to the walleyes. Increased Smallmouth and Northern population??? What about the increased Muskie population, they are regulated to make Mille Lacs Muskies trophy size, like they don’t eat Walleye forage?Or better yet Walleyes themselves? How about we lower the size regs on those!?! Or maybe just maybe the NETTING has something to do with it??? We need to end netting. That to me is priority number 1, Mille Lacs will end up just like Red lake and get fished out if we don’t do something soon. Its not even all the fish taken in the nets and those eggs and small males, but it has been proven if a fish gets disrupted during the spawn she will go to deep water and drop her eggs just to waste. On top of the thousands of full bellied fish getting pulled out before they have a chance to spawn, now we are potentially talking about hundreds of thousands of walleye fry, GONE. Think about your bank account, if you bring in $1500 dollars a month from work, you have a 300 dollar car payment, $800 mortgage, $100 cell bill, $80 electric, $70 gas, $300 grocery and so on you are going to dip into your savings eventually and slowly your “extra” money starts to disappear. That’s exactly what is happening to the lake. Mille lacs does not get stocked so we have to rely on natural reproduction to bring fish in. Same concept. Blame the smallies if you want ( but that can’t be, vermillion seems to be doing fine) blame the noetherns for eating them, still not totally to blame but a better argument. They open up the northern slot to get some of them out of there. But nobody mentions the muskies, you can’t tell me a 38 inch northern is eating more walleyes than a 47 inch muskie. I say keep the slot at 2 fish per person (how it was in 2013) but let them be 2 of any size. That will cut down on the hook mortality, the average person is still going to release those walleyes over 20″ but if they happen to have a 23″ fish swallow the hook and start to float they won’t waste it and now they are half way to their limit. Then they will toss back more because they won’t want to stop fishing. Sure some people will still let a few float but I don’t think as many. And they won’t complain about coming to the lake and not getting to keep fish. As a launch captain on the lake I have seen and heard it all, any argument and complaint about the fishing and compliments. I could go on for hours about this subject. Its just sad to see what is happening to the fishery and with some serious common sense and a few years it could be better than ever. But common sense is something our DNR lacks. Unfortunately this will not change because there is no money in thinking properly.

  7. Netting during the spawn has killed this lake as well has the slots. Muskie are not native to these waters so stop introducing them to our lakes.

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