LAKE MILLE LACS — We should have known it couldn’t last.
At least it shouldn’t, they say.
After years of mediocre to sub-par walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs, this fall’s bite has given Mille Lacs anglers hope that the state’s premier walleye fishery was turning a corner.
Gary Roach called recently, saying I needed to get out on Mille Lacs — and soon. I did, with Mr. Walleye and fellow longtime Mille Lacs walleye guy Steve Bissett, on the Thursday before the Minnesota firearms deer hunting opener.
We ended up getting our limits in about three hours, also catching and releasing a dozen or so good-sized walleyes that were outside the slot. And that was a slow bite as of late, they said.
Interestingly, later that day, I received the news: A recent assessment of Lake Mille Lacs identified a smaller-than-anticipated walleye population, according to the DNR.
The DNR went on to say that, based on recent 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 long-term trend of walleye population assessments on Mille Lacs since the mid-1980s has been declining overall, but the trend for female walleyes has been stable. The DNR said this may reflect the fact that the walleye harvest strategies employed by the state and the Chippewa Bands are more selective for smaller, male walleyes.
The implications of the decline in males to the overall fishery are not clear, the DNR said. Fisheries biologists are evaluating the new data to better understand those implications and how they might influence future management options.
The DNR supported our findings in that recent outing on Mille Lacs — that the new fish population information comes at a time when walleye fishing is good at the lake. The DNR went on to say that its fisheries managers believe good fishing may continue this winter and spring, even in the face of a decreasing walleye population. This may be due to relatively low numbers of young-of-the-year perch, the primary food sources for young walleyes. The perch also are small in size, according to the new assessment data.
The DNR said fisheries managers understand that a smaller perch population typically results in hungry walleyes, especially “keeper” sizes. Looking to 2012, a resulting high harvest would be a concern if it is projected to reach or exceed the state’s allocation, which will be set in February in cooperation with Chippewa Band managers, the DNR said.
Northern pike abundance also went down, according to the recent assessment, as did tullibee (cisco) numbers. Smallmouth bass have been increasing in abundance for years, and although not at an all-time high as observed in 2009 (1.9 fish per net), they were above average in abundance at 1.1 fish per net.
Prior to setting the 2012 regulations, DNR managers will meet with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group, an advisory group of anglers and local business interests, to discuss the status of the lake’s fish populations.
In the meantime, get out while the getting is good on Mille Lacs. Because according to that DNR assessment, it’s probably not going to last much longer.
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www. twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.