Tony and Jeanne Eckert travelled three hours from their home in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to go walleye fishing here at Lake Mille Lacs. At a boat dock near the lakeside town of Garrison, the couple looks over a map to decide where to try their luck.
The Eckerts have found little success so far. Tony Eckert says after a few of days of fishing, they have yet to catch a walleye they can keep.
"To come this far and not take anything home makes it a little frustrating," Eckert says.
If you're fishing for and catching walleye on Lake Mille Lacs these days, here's what you can keep -- a fish that's between 14 and 16 inches long.
If you're lucky enough to catch a walleye more than 28 inches, you can keep that trophy too, but only one. A total of four is all you're legally allowed to take home, everything else has to be thrown back.
The Eckerts love to fish on Mille Lacs and say they'd make the trip regardless of what slot limits are in place. Although this time Tony Eckert doubts they'll take any walleye home.
"Actually, we'll give it a couple more hours and if we can't get anything to go, we'll go muskie fishing," Eckert says.
Officials at the Department of Natural Resources say they understand the tight slot limits can frustrate some anglers, but they're necessary for the health of the walleye population.
The head of fisheries at the DNR, Ron Payer, says a record number of fishing trips have been taken on Mille Lacs this season. In fact, DNR numbers show anglers spent spent 372,000 hours fishing the lake in the last two weeks of June alone. That's more than many big Minnesota lakes see for the entire year.
"Mille Lacs is a day trip for a lot of people. They can drive up and fish, and we've just seen a tremendous amount of people take advantage of that," Payer says.
The walleye population in Mille Lacs is managed differently than on other lakes because of treaty agreements between the state and eight Ojibwe Indian bands.
At the beginning of each season, DNR biologists and band officials determine a walleye harvest that's intended to keep the fish population healthy. This year, band members were given an allotment of 100,000 pounds of fish, while non-Indian anglers got 449,000. At the end of June, non-Indians had already caught 385,000 pounds of fish.
“I tell them it's a good boat ride, and if they get a fish it's a plus, it's a bonus.”Sharon Marten, Eddys' Resort
In addition, the DNR estimates tens of thousands of pounds of fish have turned up dead after being caught and released; it's called hook mortality. Ron Payer says because of the lake's warm water, it's killing more walleye this year, and that means non-Indian anglers are closing in on their allotment of walleye.
"We have to apply that against not only the fish that are kept by anglers, but those we estimate that die, because the concern is for the total number of walleye killed," Payer says.
Payer expects the slot limits will slow the walleye harvest. If it doesn't, and anglers take the lake's yearly allotment of walleye, walleye fishing would have shut down on Mille Lacs until the end of November.
The restrictive slot limits don't seem to be slowing down the traffic at Eddy's Resort on the west side of Mille Lacs. Sharon Marten works in the resort's bait shop, and schedules fishing trips for hundreds of anglers every day. Right now the trips are booked a day and a half ahead of time.
Marten even when anglers hear about the new slot limits, most don't change their trips. And she says she's honest about their chances of catching a fish that falls within the limits.
"I tell them it's a good boat ride, and if they get a fish it's a plus, it's a bonus," Martens says.
Marten says most people understand the limits are necessary to keep Lake Mille Lacs' walleye population healthy for future fishing trips.