Headlines of "Something's fishy at Mille Lacs" and a cutline stating "You can't fish for walleye on Mille Lacs" in The Brainerd Dispatch, Sunday, July 21, 2002, has prompted my viewpoint of the Mille Lacs fishery.
The cutline was later corrected to what it should have read, "You can't fish for walleye on Lake Mille Lacs without a ruler."
I've fished Mille Lacs all my life and guided the last 28 years. When outdoor writers make stupid statements like this, it infuriates me. Dead fish floating on the lakes surface is nothing new. It happens every year when water temps reach mid- and upper 70s. It's nature's way of eliminating the old and weak. Tullipee, perch, burbot, suckers, northerns and walleye are all affected by this. Their dying and floating to shore has happened for the last 150-plus years and will happen for the next 150-plus years, no matter what happens with the slot limits or any other regulations or fishing pressure on Mille Lacs. Over half of the fish floating have nothing to do with hooking mortality. They are tulipee and walleyes dying of natural causes and old age.
As for Linda Eno and her kids placing dead fish on the highway shoulders, I would like to know why they shouldn't get a ticket for littering. If she put half the energy used fighting the DNR's rules and regs into running and promoting their resort she probably would have a hard time keeping up with all the business. Customers get tired of hearing all the whining and complaining. They are here to have a good time.
Dick Sternberg is another person who is blowing this issue totally out of proportion. He hasn't been a DNR biologist for 20 years. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see his stake in this issue. Perm paid him for his report on Mille Lacs. What would you expect him to say? Over the last several years Dick has used up more of the DNR's time, (several million dollars of it) than any other single person. This is time the DNR could have been working on getting more accurate population numbers so we could safely harvest more fish, instead of gathering research for his book. His statements of starving walleyes and a fishery on the verge of collapse are vastly overstated. What's he going to say these next weeks as the young of the year come back into the food chain and this slows the bite? One of Mille Lacs biggest forages for the fish are all the different bugs. The fish can live off of them alone. They just don't get as fat as when there is an over supply of bait. The best thing for Mille Lacs is for Dick to stay on Minnetonka and let the DNR manage the lake. Our walleyes may be slender this year but they aren't supposed to be shaped like footballs. They definitely aren't on the verge of collapse. They are already fattening up with all the new minnows that are coming into the good chain.
The DNR biologists have been given a very tough job to do. First they have to accurately figure out how many adult walleyes are in the lake. Until 5 years ago it really didn't matter. Now it's the most crucial number because biomass, harvest quotas and everything else comes from this one number. Their estimates of 600,000 walleyes (about four fish per acre) are probably low and they agree to this. Collecting more and better data is important. The tagging study, more deep water test nets and a few more years will continue to get more accurate numbers. We've got some very good people working on this. Let's give them a chance to do their job.
Every angler has their own answer to our current situation. I'm no different. I've guided through some of the "good ole' days" when we would leave the dock and I would tell the clients if we get five bites today we'll be doing great. You didn't want to miss a bite as there weren't many chances. That was the years Mille Lacs was known as "the dead sea." How about when it was known as, "Lake McDonald - the home of the quarter pounders?" Since the slot limits were put in effect, we have had consistent good quality fishing every year and there is no reason it won't continue. It will take a few more years to find the magic harvest number that the lake will sustain. A couple of my thoughts are there is many more fish in the lake. Maybe as much as twice the four fish per acre the DNR claims. But even with only one more fish per acre (133,000 fish or 400,000 pounds) this would allow another 100,000 pounds of harvest which could be used to take one fish above the slot for the first three weeks of the season when most of the fish we catch are males. Somewhere between 25-35 percent of this group of fish shouldn't be charged against our quota because according to the DNR, 25 percent of these older fish are going to die naturally and 6-10 percent from hooking mortality. This would be a great way to harvest mostly older males. For the last five years we have not harvested any fish above the slot legally. Most males grow to 19-24" and never get any bigger. At our current regulations there is no provision to harvest any of these fish. They have to die of old age or hooking mortality. The slot limit is a good way of limiting the harvest and still allowing unlimited fishing pressure. Today we have more people spending more time with better equipment and better fishing knowledge. Some people say the slot will stop people from coming to Mille Lacs. Well, look at all the landings. They're overflowing even though they know most all the fish caught will be released. Fishermen are coming in record numbers because of the fun of catching. The courts decided Mille Lacs is to be a shared resource with our neighbors. The sooner everyone accepts this, the quicker we can move on to what is really best for the lake and the economy around it.
In the meantime enjoy the great fishing because it will be slowing as more of this years' minnow crop becomes available food for the walleyes. Also, be sure to send in your tag fish information. The more times we catch and release these tagged walleye, the lower our mortality rate will go.
(McQuoid is an Isle resident who has been a Mille Lacs fishing guide for 28 years.)
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