(AP) - The population of walleye in Lake Mille Lacs, the state's most popular walleye lake, have declined dramatically, according to surveys by the Department of Natural Resources.
Recent netting surveys produced the fewest pounds of walleye since 1983, when such surveys began. The unexpected declines could lead to stricter walleye rules for the ice-fishing season and possibly next spring.
"It appears from the netting that the population is very low," said Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries manager in Aitkin. "I can't say why at this point. We've only had a week to look at the data, so we need to put it together with other information."
In the survey, fisheries managers caught only 12.8 pounds of walleyes per net. Last year, it was 31 pounds per net, above the long-term average of 28.9.
Bruesewitz said the agency safe "threshold" is 18.9 pounds per net. "We breached that by a fair amount," he said.
So far, overfishing doesn't appear to be the culprit.
One cause might be low production and survival for walleye hatched in 2002. The hatch from that year could be significant because those fish are large enough to be caught and kept by anglers this year.
Bruesewitz said unusually warm water temperatures contributed to a recent die-off of tullibees, a walleye prey fish that's important to the health of the fishery. Record warm water temperatures in June also contributed to a higher mortality rate of walleyes released by anglers.
DNR officials met recently with the Lake Mille Lacs Fisheries Input Group, made up of anglers and local business owners, to discuss potential winter regulations. Currently, anglers can only keep walleyes between 14 and 16 inches, with one trophy of more than 28 inches.
Bruesewitz said the group favored a rule that would allow anglers to keep walleyes smaller than 20 inches, with one larger than 28. The limit per angler would stay at four fish. Bruesewitz said other options are under consideration, including keeping the current size limits. A decision is expected soon.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)