It will be a very different walleye-fishing opener in Minnesota.
Most years, Mother’s Day falls on the same weekend as the opener, making for an even bigger celebration among families/fishing groups — and in general, it seems. This year, however, Mother’s Day is on the previous Sunday.
And here in central Minnesota, the May 14 opener will mark the beginning of a somber stretch for walleye anglers on Mille Lacs Lake. Regarded not that long ago as the premier walleye fishery in the state, the lake will be catch-and-release-only for walleyes this open-water season.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before on major walleye lakes in this area come the opener. It was less than a decade ago that walleye-fishing was on hiatus on two other once-great Minnesota walleye fisheries — Leech Lake at Walker and Upper Red Lake at Waskish — as both also tried to rebound from the walleye-less depths.
The good news for Mille Lacs — or at least a reason for some hope — is that both have done just that. Leech’s walleye population seems to get stronger each year. And Monday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced that less restrictive walleye regulations put in place on Upper Red this past winter will continue with this open-water season (like at Mille Lacs, Red Lake as a whole has a tribal-netting presence, too). That means a daily limit of three walleyes per angler, with one fish longer than 17 inches allowed in that bag limit.
That’s down slightly in number and size from when Upper Red arguably was in the prime of that walleye comeback — in 2012-13, for example, anglers could keep four walleyes up to 20 inches, with one longer than 26 inches allowed. At the time, the DNR admitted those regs were loose, the changes prompted by annual harvest estimates below the target harvest range the previous two years, the agency said at the time. For four years before that, the protected slot was 17-26 inches from the May walleye opener through June 14, when catch rates were high and the spawning stock most vulnerable, the DNR said. From 2009-2012, there had been a mid-season slot limit adjustment to 20 to 26 inches from June 15 through Nov. 30.
Of this year’s regs, the DNR’s Gary Barnard said, “The new angling regulation and the abundance of 13- to 19-inch walleye in the population should combine for a great fishing opener on Upper Red Lake.”
“We will be able to continue into the 2016 open-water season with the less restrictive regulations because the new harvest plan allows more harvest when spawning-size fish are in surplus,” added Barnard, Bemidji area fisheries supervisor.
Walleye harvest on Upper Red Lake is managed on an annual basis by a harvest plan, which was updated before the most recent winter fishing season, the DNR said in Monday’s release. Creel survey information suggests that the regulation also is meeting the DNR management objective of distributing the harvest over a broader size range and removing some of the surplus spawning-sized fish from the population. Future harvest adjustments could include increasing the bag limit this summer.
“Safeguards are built into the current rule package in case spring harvest is excessive,” Barnard said. “But given a lower winter harvest, a June 15 adjustment to a four-fish bag limit is very likely.”
And, given what’s going on at Mille Lacs, that’s just what walleye anglers statewide want to hear.
That and the sound of walleyes sloshing in the livewell.