A change to a lighter walleye harvest on Lake Mille Lacs is weighing heavy on some in the area fishing industry.
"Yeah, it's going to hurt," Terry Thurmer, owner of Terry's Boat Harbor and Marina on Lake Mille Lacs, said upon learning Thursday that the DNR will limit the number of walleyes anglers can take out of Mille Lacs this year - by 142,500 pounds for non-tribe members.
The state and Ojibwe Indian tribe recently agreed to cut the allowable walleye harvest from 549,000 pounds last year to 430,000 pounds this year. Non-tribe members will get 307,500 pounds - 142,500 pounds less than last year - and the tribe will get 122,500 pounds - 22,500 pounds more than last year, according to the DNR.
"Their system they have doesn't work for businesses," Thurmer said of the DNR. "They've made it so it's impossible for us to have a good year. If you get good fishing they say it's too good (and change the regulations)."
So what do the aforementioned numbers mean to individual anglers? Likely more restrictive slot and/or bag limits. Currently, Mille Lacs regulations allow for four walleyes to be kept, with a protective slot of between 20 and 28 inches. One fish longer than 28 inches may be kept.
"Beginning with the open-water season, that could change," said Pat Schmalz, an 1837 Treaty fisheries biologist out of Aitkin. "(The DNR) could change the slot. Chances are you're looking at having a more restricted regulation. Probably not a bag limit, but it could be a different slot limit.
"Well in advance of the opener (in May), we'll have an answer. In mid- to late march, we should have a final decision."
Last summer, the DNR allowed only walleyes 14 to 16 inches to be kept, which some in the industry said was too restrictive. The DNR said regulations for this spring likely won't be as restrictive.
"Last year, when they changed the slot, that crushed us," Thurmer said.
"It's all predicated by the slot for most people," said Bill Herick, who holds the Wave Wacker walleye fishing tournament on Mille Lacs in the summer and has had a cabin on the lake since 1955, he said. "If they go to 14 to 16 inches, it would shut the lake down. They really have to monitor that. It will be interesting to see what they do with the slot. If they reduce it down to where it was last year, it will shut the place down."
Professional fisherman Gary "Mr. Walleye" Roach agreed.
"I'd think about business you lose. Businesses are losing and losing each year, and this is putting a crunch on it," said Roach, who regularly fishes Mille Lacs. "I don't think they're using their heads."
Steve Bissett, a guide on Mille Lacs, was pleasantly surprised when he heard the new walleye numbers.
"That's not as bad as I thought it would be," Bissett said. "I figured it would be 350,000 or in the mid-300s. So it's not a worst-case scenario. It's actually good news."
The new numbers on Mille Lacs are based, in part, on test netting last fall, which indicated a mysterious decline in the walleye population on Mille Lacs.
"I just hope that next year, when they do their test netting, they get the water temperature at the right time," Bissett said. "They did it at the wrong time last year, which is why they didn't get any fish in their nets. If there's one deficiency in that outfit (the DNR), it's that they don't monitor water temperature."
Said Roach: "There are all kinds of fish (walleyes in Mille Lacs), but they won't bite. You can see the fish come through but they don't bite. Their bellies are full of perch.
"It (the walleye population) might be a little down. But there are a lot of walleyes out there, they're just not biting because of all the perch. That's happened out there before."
BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864.
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