Walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs is a pretty touchy subject. The lake is fished by Indian bands as well as non-tribal anglers, and conversations about fishing there can quickly descend into questions over fairness and finger pointing over who gets what.
Now, there's a new twist to the story: There's a chance the Department of Natural Resources could reduce the number of walleye that anglers can keep on Lake Mille Lacs next year. Research data suggests there could be a dip in the walleye population, but it's hard to know if that's actually true.
Earlier this year, the DNR dipped nets in the water to sample the fish population, and caught fewer fish than in previous, similar outings. The agency doesn't know if that's a fluke, or actually represents a dip in population. Anecdotally, fishing on the lake has been good, but the test results show the second lowest walleye counts in the lake since 1983, putting the state in a situation where there's really no wiggle room over the total harvest non-tribal anglers are allowed to take next year.
Earlier this month, the DNR discussed the situation in Hazelton Township with a group of area business owners called the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group. Don Pereira, the DNR's fisheries research and policy manager, said that in January the state will meet with area bands to compare data and set safe harvest levels.
"We bring our best models to the table," he said. "We determine what the total poundage should be of walleyes that can be killed on Mille Lacs by all users, tribal and non tribal, for the coming year. And then the bands have their declaration on what they're going to kill and the state takes the balance."
Under the current rules, anglers can have a total of four walleye in their possession. In addition to the number of walleye anglers can keep, the DNR sets what are called protected slot limits, to help the state stay within the safe harvest level. Walleye caught between 18 and 28 inches have to be released back into the lake.
Pereira said the DNR is trying to decide if it needs to restrict the number of fish anglers can keep, or increase the slot limits.
"If the winter fishery indicates that the bite is really good, and we have quite a high harvest in the winter time, then we might have to find a regulation more restrictive to keep the state within its allocation," he said.
Like the DNR, area bands that fish the lake also perform testing and annual monitoring of their own. The bands also have catch limits, operating under five-year management plans, with a new one going into effect in 2013.
"They are concerned about the figures that the DNR has released," said Sue Erickson, a spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. "The bottom line for the tribe is of course that the resource will be protected." Beyond that, she said the tribe won't discuss the data before its January meeting with the DNR.
The DNR's December gathering on Mille Lacs was unusual, but the agency wanted to give area business owners the opportunity to voice their concerns early in the process. Steve Johnson, who owns Johnson's Portside, said he thinks the lake is healthy and the walleye are doing just fine.
"Unfortunately, because we're under Treaties Fisheries Management, there's certain thresholds that have to be met, that make it seem like the lake can be in worse condition than it actually is. It's perception," he said.
Bob Carlson, who works at the Red Door Resort on the lake's north shore, said he worries that people won't want to fish at a lake where the regulations are too strict.
"It's always a concern. How do you sell that to a customer coming up from Iowa? They want to keep some fish," he said.
The DNR is likely to make an official decision on catch limits for next year on Lake Mille Lacs in February, after they have data from winter fishing.