Mille Lacs Lake anglers will be able to keep one walleye 19- to 21-inches long or one over 28 inches when fishing opens on Saturday, May 9, and an extended night fishing closure will again be in effect beginning the Monday after the opener, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said.
The restrictive walleye regulations are necessary to keep walleye harvest within the lake’s established safe harvest level.
“The new regulations reflect our commitment to improve the walleye fishery as quickly as possible and stay within the state’s 1837 Treaty safe harvest allocation yet continue to provide walleye angling opportunities,” said Don Pereira, fisheries chief for the DNR.
The 2015 regulations for Mille Lacs Lake are:
- Walleye – Limit of one and the fish must be 19- to 21-inches long or longer than 28 inches. Night closure from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. May 11 to Dec. 1.
- Northern pike – Limit of 10. One fish may be longer than 30 inches only if two fish shorter than 30 inches are caught on the same trip and in possession.
- Bass – Limit of six smallmouth and largemouth bass in combination. Only one smallmouth bass may be longer than 18 inches.
Mille Lacs’ 2015 walleye safe harvest level was reduced from 60,000 to 40,000 pounds in 2015 so more fish potentially survive and spawn to improve the walleye population. State anglers can harvest up to 28,600 pounds of walleye. The eight Chippewa bands with 1837 Treaty harvest rights can harvest up to 11,400 pounds of walleye.
Last year, Mille Lacs anglers could keep two walleye 18- to 20-inches long or one longer than 28 inches.
A night fishing closure, enforced from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., will begin Monday, May 11, and extend to Tuesday, Dec. 1.
“This set of regulations is designed to minimize the likelihood that a catch-and-release only walleye fishing regulation would be needed later in the season to stay within the state’s safe harvest allocation,” Pereira said.
Like last year, anglers may keep up to 10 northern pike. A change – suggested and supported by the Mille Lacs input group – this year allows one of those fish to be longer than 30 inches only if an angler has first caught at least two northerns shorter than 30 inches on the same trip and has them in immediate possession. Angling season for northern pike runs from May 9 through March 27, 2016.
“There was too much pressure on large northern pike last year when anglers and spearers could harvest one fish longer than 30 inches without restriction,” Pereira said. “So this year we’re experimenting with an earn-a-trophy concept that requires anglers to harvest more abundant smaller fish before they can take home a big fish.”
Mille Lacs’ relaxed smallmouth bass regulations remain in effect. The smallmouth bass season begins May 9 and allows anglers to harvest smallmouth bass from the walleye opener until the last Sunday in February 2016. Anglers may keep six smallmouth and largemouth bass in combination, but only one smallmouth bass may be longer than 18 inches.
“The continuation of liberal northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations speak to the fact these species can withstand additional pressure because their populations are at or near record highs,” Pereira said. “The current walleye regulation and the extended night fishing closure will protect upcoming year classes of young walleye and adult spawning stock, and help ensure the harvest stays within the safe harvest level.”
There will be two exceptions to the night fishing ban this year for muskellunge and bow fishing. Beginning Monday, June 8, muskellunge anglers may fish at night with artificial lures longer than 8 inches or sucker minnows longer than 8 inches. Bow fishing for rough fish only also will be allowed at night beginning June 8 provided no angling equipment is in a boat.
“Night muskie fishing and bow fishing for rough fish are popular on Mille Lacs,” Pereira said. “Last year, all boats had to be off the water at night. This year, we’ve listened to stakeholders and adjusted the regulations to accommodate night fishing methods that are expected to have no impact on the walleye we’re trying to protect.”
Pereira said the suite of regulations reflects significant fish population changes at Mille Lacs. Walleye numbers are at a 40-year low. Northern pike numbers are at record highs. The smallmouth bass population has been increasing since the 1990s. Tullibee and perch populations, both important forage species, are relatively low.
Fish populations likely are being influenced by many factors including a management approach that focused too much walleye harvest on too narrow a size range of fish. An adequate number of spawners remain in the lake and sufficient walleye continue to hatch each year. The problem is that since 2008, not enough young walleye are surviving to maturity and replenishing the population.
“We’re encouraged by walleye hatched in 2013,” Pereira said. “That year class shows strong signs that more of those fish are surviving and will mature.”
Other factors contributing to the changing fishery on Mille Lacs and possibly influencing the survival of young walleye include clearer water that may limit suitable habitat and increase vulnerability to predation, longer growing seasons related to climate change that may favor other species, and the indirect impacts of a variety of invasive species in the lake, including zebra mussels, spiny water fleas and Eurasian watermilfoil.
“Mille Lacs is a system under change and portions of that change began even prior to the intensive management that began in the late 1990s,” said Pereira. “The good news is that we have more than enough spawning walleye and a history of solid egg and fry production. What we need is for the walleye that hatch to grow into strong year classes for anglers to catch. That hasn’t happened since 2008. That’s why we are focused on protecting small walleye and our ample but declining walleye spawning stock.”
Pereira added that the agency is also committed to the long-term protection of the lake’s trophy smallmouth and trophy northern pike fisheries. The experimental earn-a-trophy restriction on pike implemented this year was done to protect large fish, which were harvested last year at rate not sustainable in the long-term.