Mille Lacs Lake anglers will have to release all walleyes they catch this summer, and they’ll be restricted to using artificial tackle only.
Those were among regulations the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Monday for the lake, where the walleye population remains near historic lows. The regulations will take effect starting with the May 14 fishing opener and are intended to remain in place for the entire open-water season.
The intent of the regulation package is to avoid a potential closure of walleye fishing on the lake like the one that was imposed last summer. The regulations also are designed to protect the large 2013 year class of fish that biologists are counting on to help the fishery rebound. Those fish will be 14 inches and longer this year, DNR officials say, a size at which anglers likely will begin to catch many of them.
“We want to provide as much fishing opportunity as possible given the fish populations in the lake,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief.
Last year’s closure of walleye fishing on Mille Lacs took effect Aug. 3. The 17-member Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, convened last October, had told the DNR that it wanted the agency to do whatever it could to prevent another walleye fishing closure on the lake.
The Mille Lacs Lake walleye harvest is governed by an agreement between the DNR and eight Native American bands that were parties to an 1837 treaty. This year’s total safe harvest level is 40,000 pounds, of which anglers are allowed 28,600 pounds and the bands are entitled to 11,400 pounds.
Even with anglers releasing all walleyes this summer, the angling allocation could be reached because hooking mortality — fish that die after being released — must be considered in the total walleye mortality. Hooking mortality is based on estimates by the DNR from previous studies of released fish.
Tony Roach, a Mille Lacs fishing guide from Moose Lake and co-chair of the advisory committee, supports the regulations announced Monday.
“It’s just a conservative effort to keep the fishery open,” Roach said in a telephone interview. “The committee members didn’t want to see a closure, and I’m one of those. I was for an artificial-lure option if that was going to keep the fishery open.”
The DNR’s Pereira said the use of artificial lures instead of live bait reduces the hooking mortality of released walleyes by about 50 percent. Hooking mortality is less with artificial tackle because fish tend not to inhale the lures so deeply, allowing them to be removed more quickly.
“That was probably the most difficult part of this decision, was going to artificials only,” Pereira said.
Pereira said the artificial lure requirement means that anglers may not use “any bait that was at one time alive. Anything that is preserved, frozen or salted, that was a live minnow, night crawler or leech, is not allowed.”
But manufactured, scented baits such as Gulp will be permitted, he said.
Advisory committee member and fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids supports the regulation package.
“I think it’s in the best interest of trying to protect not only the 2013 year class but the spawning biomass,” Neustrom said. “We want people to be able to come up and angle.”
“The overriding concern was no closure (of walleye fishing),” said Dean Hanson, co-chair of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee and owner of Agate Bay Resort near Isle, Minn. “Once that decision was made, and considering the fantastic fishing we expect this summer, we weren’t given a lot of attractive alternatives.”
Walleye fishing on Mille Lacs was good this winter, and that usually portends a good summer fishing season.
“We have a small (safe-harvest) allocation, and fishing was out of this world this winter,” Roach said. “I’m happy to see the fishery open, and the fishing is going to be spectacular this summer.
The only exception to the artificial-tackle requirement will be for launch operators who secure DNR permits and agree to collect data from their trips and provide it to the DNR. Launches participating in the study could use live bait.
Launches are large boats that allow many anglers aboard. Permits issued to launches would be suspended if walleye fishing on Mille Lacs has to be closed, DNR officials said.
Pereira said the DNR plans to contain and hold some walleyes released by launch anglers to monitor survival.
Regulations also will change slightly for bass and northern pike, the DNR announced Monday.
Anglers may keep four bass in any combination of largemouth and smallmouth, down from six last year. Also, in a new requirement, all bass from 17 to 21 inches must be immediately released. All bass caught during the first two weeks of the season must be released.
Mille Lacs anglers can keep five northern pike, only one of which may be longer than 40 inches. All pike from 30 to 40 inches must be immediately released. The “earn-a-trophy” rule that required anglers to harvest two smaller pike before keeping one larger one has been eliminated for 2016.