A recent routine test netting indicates that the walleye population on Lake Mille Lacs may be smaller than expected.
The not-so-bad news, according to Ron Payer, Minnesota DNR Fisheries chief, is that test nets on the southern half of the lake showed minimal decline.
"Nets on the north shore of the lake are where we saw the largest decline in net catches," Payer said Thursday. "The southern half showed some decline, but not nearly as remarkable (as the north side)."
That's bad news for, say, fishing communities such as Garrison, located on the northwest corner of the lake.
Netting is so iffy. You could do it one week and catch the heck out of them and then the next week get nothing,
-Steve Bissett, Garrison fishing guide, on the DNRs method of testing walleye numbers on Mille Lacs.
"But everyone on the whole lake is disappointed," Payer said. "This is surprising information."
According to the DNR test, near-shore test nets caught only half as many walleye as the long-term average from 1983-2006. Nets placed in deeper water also caught fewer walleye than previous years.
Payer said the DNR averaged 7.2 walleye totaling 12.8 pounds per net, compared to an average of 15.4 and 28.9 pounds from 1983-2006. Last year's catch rate was 20.4 at 31 pounds per net.
The DNR also did not catch as many medium- and large-sized walleye as expected. Payer attributed the decline, in part, to higher-than-normal mortality because of unusually warm water temperatures, especially in June. Higher water temperatures stress fish and hooking mortality increases as water temperature increases.
What does this mean for anglers?
Payer and Pat Schmalz, a 1837 Treaty biologist out of Aitkin, said the DNR will need to revisit regulations. No harvest overage will be allowed in 2008 because of the lower-than-anticipated number of walleye in recent population assessments.
This is surprising information.
Minnesota DNR Fisheries chief
Current regulations on Mille Lacs allow anglers to keep walleye between 14 and 16 inches, and not more than one walleye longer than 28 inches. The limit is four.
Gary Roach, a professional fisherman from the Merrifield area who regularly fishes Mille Lacs, wasn't buying into the news.
"I don't believe it," Roach said. "Everyone was catching fish before. It's catch-and-release. You can't catch all those fish. And we always have a tough time catching fish (in October). They're not biting this time of year.
"If they were so concerned about the fish, why didn't they have that limit thing earlier?"
Steve Bissett, a guide on Mille Lacs out of Garrison and a professional walleye fisherman, questioned the DNR's method of gauging the walleye population.
"Netting is so iffy. You could do it one week and catch the heck out of them and then the next week get nothing," Bissett said. "If they think the population has dropped, where did the fish go? It sure wasn't because we killed them. There hasn't been anyone fishing them since July, when they went to the new slot.
"Maybe they should lower the limit to two so they wouldn't get so many people out there."
Payer said DNR Fisheries managers met Monday with the Lake Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group - made up of area residents and business owners - to discuss fishing options for this winter. No decisions were made, although those at the meeting favored retaining the 20- to 28-inch protected slot that starts Dec. 1. This would include a bag limit of four and one walleye 28 inches or larger.
"There was definitely a lot of concern expressed at the input meeting," Schmalz said Thursday. "Resort owners and guides from all around the lake were in attendance. There's definitely people out there who are concerned."
A final decision on winter regulations will be made next week. Regulations for the 2008 open water season will be established in February 2008 and go into effect with the walleye opener.
Despite news of the test results, it's not all gloom and doom on Mille Lacs.
"It's not dire straits. The sky's not falling," Schmalz said. "The net numbers are lower than expected and that caught us off guard. The fact that it's the lowest catches in those nets ever is a big deal. But the distribution of (fish) age classes is as wide as it ever was. That's a good sign. But for whatever reason, when the fish hit 16 inches, the numbers were lower than expected."
BRIAN S. PETERSON, outdoors editor, may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864.
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