Tony Roach posed proudly with the plump, large Lake Mille Lacs walleye.
When the photo was taken, he didn’t say. Could have been about any day this winter.
“We have been catching several a day in that 26- to 29-inch range,” Roach said Thursday.
Considering he has guided on Mille Lacs all but three days since Dec. 17, that’s a lot of big walleyes.
“We’ve caught 29-3/4s (-inch walleyes), 29-1/2s,” Roach said. “But I try to encourage them (clients) to throw them back.”
So, as the walleye season closes Sunday on Mille Lacs and lakes in the Brainerd area, Roach is looking ahead to what he believes will be a strong open-water season on Mille Lacs, too.
“You find the typical hot spots in the spring, but I truly believe that, around the whole lake, it will be an excellent bite for the opener (May 12),” Roach said. “I’ve caught more overs (walleyes over the slot limit, which is 18 to 28 inches) this winter than the last five winters combined.”
Roach, 34, the grand-nephew of local fishing legend Gary Roach — Mr. Walleye — has fished Mille Lacs his whole life and has guided on the lake most of his adult life, and fewer — if any — anglers have been as visible as Roach on the lake this winter. Poor ice conditions on the lake early might have kept many off the ice, but one of the better walleye bites in years brought anglers out in force down the stretch.
“There’s lots of slot fish and smaller fish and big fish sprinkled in throughout the day,” said Roach, who said he’s finding about 22 to 24 inches of ice on the lake. “This time of year there’s not usually a lot of big females, but there’s been a good mix. And it’s the best year classes I’ve seen.
“We’re finding the fish deep — 30 to 32 feet off the edges. But with these fronts coming through they’ve slipped up in the morning and evening to 20 to 24 feet. We’re mostly catching them on spoons tipped with a minnow head. The mud flats are still probably (the best area to catch fish). Day in and day out it’s been fairly consistent. It’s been a good bite.”
That wasn’t totally unexpected, in spite of a DNR assessment in November that identified a smaller-than-anticipated Mille Lacs walleye population. Based on the netting assessments, the lake’s walleye index dropped from 10.8 fish per net (22.9 pounds per net) in 2010 to 9.7 fish per net (16 pounds per net) in 2011 — the second lowest walleye abundance measured since the DNR large lake monitoring program began in 1983.
The news came at about the same time as the lake was seeing a stellar fall walleye bite. But DNR Fisheries managers expected the good fishing to continue over the winter and into the spring, even in the face of a decreasing walleye population.
According to the DNR assessment, there were low numbers of young-of-the-year perch, the primary food source for young walleyes, and the number of tullibees — a favorite of bigger walleyes — dropped from 2010 to 2011.
But Roach isn’t seeing that.
“We don’t have the massive numbers of perch, but if it’s an early spring, I think we’ll see an amazing perch hatch,” he said. “There’s some (perch) but not an overwhelming amount. But it’s not bad. I’m not sure if there’s a shortage, but it’s not the huge bumper crop we’ve seen. And the tullibees are all over the lake. We’ve hit some schools where we could sit there for two to three hours and drill them.
“The tullibee numbers are back. A lot of years, that’s what gets the fish that push over 28 inches.”
Yes, fishing has been so good on Mille Lacs that officials said they might have to tighten walleye regulations this spring or summer to prevent anglers from exceeding the state’s walleye allocation in 2012. DNR officials said they will likely decide on the open-water walleye regulations sometime in March.
At a Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group meeting earlier this month, the group looked to get permission from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents the Ojibwe bands that net on the lake, to exceed the state allocation of 357,500 pounds by 30,000 pounds this year. If the good fishing continues on Mille Lacs, DNR officials figure anglers could exceed the state allocation by maybe 30,000 pounds.
There has been talk of going to a 17- to 28-inch protected slot, keeping the 18- to 28-inch slot and cutting the bag limit from four to two fish or going to 17- to 28-inch slot AND a two-fish bag limit.
“Prior to the slot limits, I’ve watched boom and bust years all the time. Once the slots were implemented and take hold ...,” Roach said. “I like the slot limit — 18 inches is a good slot.”
His two clients caught seven keeper walleyes Tuesday morning. Just another outing on Lake Mille Lacs this winter.
“This time of year, as the days get longer, you typically can fish from morning to evening,” Roach said. “It’s been real good, the evenings especially.
“It’s been a little better than previous years. It hasn’t been unbelievable, but all year it’s been pretty phenomenal, too. I definitely can’t complain.”