The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources may need to slow the number of walleye coming out of Lake Mille Lacs this summer. Data and projection models from the DNR show that if the current rate continues, the state's walleye limit could be reached too early in the season.
On Thursday evening, DNR representatives met with Garrison business owners concerned that possible limits on the walleye catch on the lake could impact the local tourism industry.
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: Walleye caught between 18 and 28 inches have to be released back into the lake.
Rick Bruesewitz, area fisheries supervisor with the DNR in Aitkin, says the agency will wait until later this month for more data on winter fishing before making any recommendations.
"Then we'll have a better idea which scenario we're looking at is closer to reality," he said Thursday.
Last month the DNR compared data with Indian bands that also fish Lake Mille Lacs regarding the health of the fishery, in an effort to establish catch limits for the bands, and for recreational anglers.
Don Pereira, the DNR's fisheries research and policy manager, said that going over the agreed-to walleye limit just isn't an option.
"The bands could take us into court," he said. "It quickly moves into a legal issue."
So the DNR posed the question to those assembled: Would it be better to take a more conservative approach going into the summer fishing season? Or change limits mid season?
Various solutions were posed at last night's meeting, including checking with the bands for a leniency that would let sport anglers go over the agreed limit this season. And if the bands said no, the state would set a regulation that in effect would keep more fish in the lake. The state has been drastically under its limit for the past several years.
At the heart of the issue is tourism, a major economic driver for the area. The concern is that more restrictions drive away business because people can't keep as many fish.
"If you go cut the regulation size down, people quit coming up, going fishing. Ya know, they'll go other places," said Terry Thurmer, owner of Terry's Boat Harbor, which rents boats and fish houses on Lake Mille Lacs.
Thurmer recalls some difficult times in years past when conservative fishing regulations have hurt his business.
"I mean you could've literally locked your doors. Like you flipped the light switch, the people just quit coming, ya know. It was over," he said.
Terry McQuoid, who runs McQuoid's Inn on the southeast corner of the lake, said he was more optimistic about the possible changes.
"I've been looking out for the lake since day one, and I will until they plant me in the ground. That's how important the lake is to me personally. Besides business-wise, ya know were looking out for the lake."
The DNR is expected to set walleye fishing limits on Lake Mille Lacs by the end of March. It's not clear whether the DNR will ask the Indian bands for any leniency.