What is happening to the walleyes on Mille Lacs?
That’s the (multi) million-dollar question that has been asked over the last few years. A perfect storm of events have caused such a dramatic decrease in their population that no walleyes can be kept by anglers during the 2016 open water fishing season. An earlier decision to restrict bait to artificial-only was reversed.
“A low level of allowed harvest doesn’t necessarily mean slow walleye fishing,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Don Pereira said.
In fact, walleye fishing was strong this past winter and should continue to be strong this summer, but with an allowable harvest of only 28,600 pounds for anglers, a catch-and-release season was inevitable.
Biologists and state officials have been working hard to determine potential long-term solutions to the problem.
Water clarity, declining forage, and unsustainable harvest levels have played a part in the population plunge. Allowable harvest levels have decreased down to 40,000 pounds despite being at higher levels in recent years, such as 395,000 in 2001.
A new research study kicked off this week to determine the number of Mille Lacs Lake walleye hatched in the wild.
“We need to trap fish in the lake that are coming in to spawn,” Pereira said. The female fish were then stripped of their eggs and fertilized with milt from the males. The fertilized eggs were transported to the DNR’s St. Paul hatchery where they’ll be incubated and hatched. The fry will then be brought back to Mille Lacs in early May to be released.
Estimates of over 30 million eggs were collected from Mille Lacs walleye and brought to St Paul, during a better-than-expected stripping process. The goal is to release 10 million fry back into the lake.
Brad Parsons, the DNR’s Central Region Fisheries Chief, walked us through the process during a brisk morning on the southeast shore of Mille Lacs.
“We’ll mark the fish with a common antibiotic called oxytetracycline that places a mark on the fish’s ear bone,” Parsons said. The marked fry from the hatchery will then be collected during fall surveys.
With these marked fry, the DNR can get an idea of how well the lake is naturally reproducing walleye. This research has been done successfully in other Minnesota lakes such as Vermilion, Ottertail, Leech, Winnibigoshish and Red.
This effort will also lay the framework should naturally reproducing walleye in Mille Lacs drop to a critical level and a restocking effort does need to take place. There is also a plan in the works that could see a new facility built near the lake that would include a cool-water hatchery. These are just a few of the steps that are being taken to ensure a bright future for one of the most important fisheries in the region. Anglers, resort owners and lake shore dwellers are all counting on it.