GARRISON, Minn. — You hear it all the time about Mille Lacs: if you go there in November before the water turns to ice, the fish gods reward you with big walleyes. Muskies, too.
We put those tantalizing tales to the test late last week, confirming that the big lake gives up great, golden walleyes after Halloween.
"It feels like we're stealing time," Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights said as he positioned his 19-foot fishing boat in Garrison Bay for another troll.
He delayed winterizing the boat's outboard motor this fall, then launched it into Mille Lacs last Friday as hundreds of thousands of other Minnesotans prepped for the statewide deer hunting opener. The two of us spent a couple of hours in the morning looking for our first bite but ultimately laid into a hungry school of fish in 15 feet of water, a little less than a mile from shore.
Cutting to the chase, we landed six walleyes trolling spinners tipped with medium-sized sucker minnows. The smallest fish was a plump 18-incher and the largest was 22 3⁄4 inches — a keeper. Scott also caught a chunky 28-inch northern pike.
"I love it when a plan comes together!" he said.
No trip to Mille Lacs is complete without banter about the fishery and how it's being managed by the Department of Natural Resources. According to DNR regional fisheries manager Brian Nerbonne, here's what's new:
For the first time under the state's co-management agreement with eight Ojibwe bands that retain fishing rights on Mille Lacs, the DNR this year set triggers giving the agency the ability to loosen in-season harvest regulations with greater speed.
On July 1, the DNR activated one trigger because the state was well below the safe harvest level set with the bands each January. As a result, the DNR relaxed the regulation to allow anglers to keep one walleye in the 20- to 23-inch range. Before the change, the slot for walleyes to keep was more restrictive: 21 to 23 inches.
Opening the "keeper" slot by one inch may not sound like much (especially since the bag limit remained at one walleye), but Nerbonne said subsequent surveys showed half of all walleyes harvested after the change measured between 20 and 21 inches. The reason? The two biggest classes of walleyes swimming in Mille Lacs were born in 2013 and 2017. The fastest-growing fish born in the latter class are now exceeding 20 inches, overlapping in size with many walleyes born in 2013.
"That one inch of difference results in quite a few more fish available to keep," Nerbonne said.
In prior harvest agreements with the bands, the DNR was able to loosen its walleye regulations if it sensed anglers weren't going to overrun the state's annual harvest quota. But those changes required a 60-day notice to the tribes. This summer, with the bands aware of predetermined triggers, the change in the slot was implemented in 30 days.
The walleye bite on Mille Lacs picked up about halfway through the season this year, Nerbonne said. That was good news for anglers, but DNR fisheries biologists attribute the improved catch rates in part to the scarcity of forage, primarily yellow perch.
This fall, DNR netting surveys showed decent walleye abundance, though numbers were lower than a year ago, Nerbonne said. Netting conditions from year to year probably explain part of this year's deficit, he said. But in another indication of a forage shortage, observers noted skinnier body condition on average in younger walleyes. In addition, electro-fishing crews this fall noted baby walleyes born in the spring were in poor shape and likely won't survive winter in good numbers — a central, recurring problem on Mille Lacs.
Once every five years, the DNR hires a consultant to provide an official estimate of the lake's walleye population. During off years, the agency and the tribes use computer modeling to approximate walleye abundance. Nerbonne said the new estimate isn't ready yet, but will be finalized by the time the agency and the bands meet in January to set next year's harvest quotas. Approximating for now, he said, the new estimate won't show drastic changes. He's not expecting an increase and there are indications the overall population has probably decreased slightly.
The winter forecast: good
In other Mille Lacs news, the slot for keeping one walleye reverts to 21-23 inches starting Dec. 1. Nerbonne said the DNR is expecting good walleye fishing over the winter because the trend is for the ice-fishing bite to resemble the fall bite.
As we fished in Garrison Bay last Friday, we were always within sight of a few boats. Sometime around 1 p.m., we saw a line of them spaced out from north to south along a break line that went from 12 to 15 feet deep. As we approached, we noticed a line of bushy weeds in 12 feet of water.
I dropped a perch-colored jig to the bottom and felt a nibble. We weren't stationary because of the wind and waves, but the walleye followed my line and I hooked him when he gave another tug. It measured at 20 1⁄2 inches in length, the precise size Nerbonne had mentioned in his discussion of the overlap, and we knew we were in the right place.
With the water temperature at 44 degrees, we switched from jigging to trolling. To reach bottom with our sucker minnows, we added 1-ounce sinkers to our rigs. Over and over, we trolled a 300-foot stretch of the weedline, always getting a bite. Our spinning tackle was loud and bright and we figured we were drawing the fish out of the weeds.
When there was a hint of darkness in the sky, we called it quits. We knew it would be a struggle to load the boat on the trailer at the shallow public launch just south of Garrison. After all, the boat ramp's public dock had been pulled ashore at least days, if not weeks, before we arrived.
We left the empty parking lot as new believers in late-fall fishing on Mille Lacs.