by Bret Amundson
28,600 pounds of walleye was the quota for anglers on Mille Lacs Lake. Up to June 30th, we’d only reached 13,000, but in the two weeks at the beginning of July, that number would jump to over 25,000 pounds, accounting for nearly half of the annual quota allowed.
How is that possible? That seems like a highly unlikely scenario.
“Totally, totally correct on being amazed at what happened here,” answered Don Periera, Fisheries Chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “It really was a perfect storm.”
To go from 13,000 pounds to 25,000 pounds in a two-week period needed a combination of pressure and weather.
“Mille Lacs at one time could support 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of walleye harvest per year, but the ecosystem is changing dramatically. It’s going to a different state and we don’t know where it’s going to land,” said Periera.
It can’t support walleye harvest like it used to. And that means constant management.
“We have a razor-thin margin for error,” Periera explained when discussing the possibility of instituting a catch-and-release or closure situation on Mille Lacs. So what happened in July?
“Effort went up quite a bit,” Periera said. “It went up from 75,000 fishing hours to 95,000 fishing hours….people showed up big time. The second factor: really warm. The warm weather really hit and the lake really started to warm up into the 70s so that drove hook mortality really high….(and) catch rates approximately doubled from June to July.”
Creel surveys and a science project brought the DNR to the conclusion that 12,000 pounds were taken out during that two-week period.
“We suddenly went from being in a fairly comfortable situation to screaming towards our allocation,” Periera said.
The creel surveys were done at landings with survey crews interviewing the anglers as they’d come off the lake. And the science project?
“A number of years ago, we did a very detailed experiment in the lake,” Periera explained. “We actually had anglers fish like they normally do. We recorded a bunch of information including the size of the fish, what type of gear they used, where the fish was hooked, the water temperature and even depth. We held those fish in these really large cribs that went all the way from the top of the lake to the bottom of the lake for 5 days to determine whether they died or not.”
“Then we fit a detailed statistical model that explains the probability of that any individual fish would die given those different parameters that we measured,” Periera continued. “That was a very solid study.”
Essentially they would keep an eye on released fish in these cribs to see if any would die. This study was reviewed by peers across North America and then published in a scientific journal.
With temperatures recorded at one time at 77.7 degrees last week, some hook mortality is expected even if it’s hard to believe that the 12,000 pound number was actually reached in a two-week span.
But here we are. What does this mean? Because we’ve gotten so close to the quota so quickly, the next step that could be implemented-the catch-and-release option, won’t even be considered. It’s possible that there could be the first ever closure on walleye fishing on Mille Lacs.
“We really can’t say right now,” Periera said. “We hurdled past the opportunity for catch-and-release. That’s the most painful part of all this.”
Catch-and-release still kills fish according to their scientific model. So the only other option is closing the season.
“Unfortunately we just have no wiggle room on this one,” Periera said. “But we want people to know that fishing for other species is not suspended.”
“We had to close Red Lake. We had to close it for 7 years because the situation was so dire. Mille Lacs isn’t near there yet and we don’t want it to get there,” Periera answered. “So it’s best to conserve now for the future.”
Not everyone agrees that those numbers are accurate.
“There just isn’t that many people out there,” said Jamie Dietman, a guide in the Brainerd area. “I mean you can go to Garrison anytime and see one or two boats out there. There were a few tournaments, but those are all catch-photo-released and most of the people I know are fishing the flats in shallower water.”
But why would the DNR skew this data?
“I think they’re just trying to save what’s there,” Dietman explained. “For the future, no matter what you do these next couple of years, it’s going to be bad. If they’re looking 4 to 5 years ahead, save what’s there and don’t stress (the fish).”
The crystal ball isn’t full of storm clouds however.
“Fishing has been good,” Periera said. “(There’s) lots of small fish from the 2013 year class that are charging through there. The bigger ones are pushing 13-inches right now and they are in huge abundance.”
And people are catching them.
“Last year in our assessment at the end of September, their catch rate was even higher than the massive 1988 year class that drove the harvest to 1.2 million pounds in 1992,” said Periera.
So if we can keep these fish from dying, maybe we can see populations start to rebound?
“It’s really going to come down to how they show up in September in our assessment and if we catch them in abundance as two-and-a-half-year-old fish,” Periera continued. “And they’re probably going to come through and survive this period of elevated mortality that’s really been hurting walleyes in the lake.”
The bottom line is, even if the data from the two-week stretch at the beginning of July seems unrealistic, the DNR wants to preserve this lake for the future and closing it right now might be the best solution to ensure that.
“A little patch here and there isn’t going to help Mille Lacs Lake and all the businesses on it,” Dietman said.
“What people need to realize is that we can’t hammer those fish,” Periera said. “We need to manage them conservatively because they’re our eggs for the future. People need to realize that walleyes die of natural causes not related to fishing at the rate of 15%-20% per year, so we’re losing existing spawners at a decent clip.
While fishing is what comes to mind when you think of Mille Lacs, saving the local economy has to be a part of the solution as well and Governor Dayton has announced the possibility of some financial assistance for businesses in the area.
Whatever the solutions are, we need to find them quickly to recover one of the best angling lakes in Minnesota. If the walleye season is closed, we don’t know yet when it would reopen. December 1st is a possibility, but it’s too early to tell if that will give the lake enough time to rest.
Here more from Don Periera and Jamie Dietman, along with Joe Henry on this weekend’s MNSJ Radio show, hosted by Bret Amundson.