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Walleye population decline will prompt tighter limit on Lake Mille Lacs

The Department of Natural Resources will tighten fishing regulations on Lake Mille Lacs this year in response to a downturn in the lake's walleye population.

DNR fisheries biologists presented the data Tuesday night at a meeting of the lake's citizens advisory committee. The population decline was not unexpected, nor is it dire, state fisheries chief Brad Parsons said. But it has translated into a 10% reduction in 2024′s allowable harvest level, recently negotiated between the DNR and Ojibwe bands with treaty rights.

The new overall allowance is set at 157,500 pounds, down from last year's safe harvest level of 175,000 pounds. The state's allocation of that combined walleye quota is 91,550, pounds — down 9% from last year's allocation of 100,300 pounds of walleyes, the DNR said.

Last year, throughout the open-water fishing season, state-licensed anglers were allowed a one-fish walleye bag limit if the catch measured between 21 and 23 inches. This year's regulation — yet to be decided — will be more stringent, the advisory committee was told.

"We're going to pump the brakes a little bit this year so we don't have to take more drastic action later on," said Brian Nerbonne, DNR regional fisheries manager.

The group discussed a range of potential regulations, including a seasonlong, catch-and-release option with no keepers. Other possibilities outlined for the group were to allow a one-fish bag for a few weeks early in the year, followed by a catch-and-release period and a temporary midsummer shutdown of all walleye fishing. In that case, there could possibly be a fall harvest season.

In the past, the citizens advisory group has opted to start with a conservative walleye regulation in hopes of avoiding an unscheduled shutdown of all walleye fishing. That has happened in the past when the quota was about to be overrun. In some years, conversely, the DNR has been able to liberalize the rules on Mille Lacs if harvest is running below expectations heading into the fall.

The agency said the overall population decline of walleyes in the 207-square-mile lake was detected three different ways: By computer modeling, fall netting surveys and a once-every-five-years population estimate by an independent expert.

Advisory committee members were told that Mille Lacs walleyes are challenged by a shortage of baby perch, a key fish on which they forage. The hungry state of the fish (noticeable by a prevalent skinny body condition) ignited high catch rates in the fall, and the strong bite has continued this winter.

In fact, the agency said, walleye harvest this winter is estimated so far at nearly 8,000 pounds, almost double last year's total kill of 4,300 pounds when anglers put in far more hours on the ice.

"The fall bite was good and January's bite was really good," Parsons said. "The bite matters."

This winter's harvest counts against the state's 2024 quota, he added.