Inside Lundeen's Tackle Castle off Highway 169 on the south end of Lake Mille Lacs, everything is ready for this weekend's walleye opener.
Lures, nets, rods and reels fill the store and mounted fish hang on the walls. Behind the counter, Bill Lundeen shows off cement tanks full of live bait.
"These are suckers," he said. "This time of year they'll use these to fish Northern."
Lundeen is looking forward to the opener, when thousands of anglers will take to the lakes. Many of them will undoubtedly head to Lake Mille Lacs, in central Minnesota.
The state's most popular walleye lake is in the last year of a five-year plan that outlines how the state and Indian bands will manage the fish harvest. The bands have submitted a new management proposal that could slightly increase their walleye take over the next five years. Lundeen and other business owners are worried that new regulations could hurt businesses still struggling to recover from the recession.
Over the last five years, Lundeen's business has dropped 30 percent, with 2011 his worst year. Aside from a record-setting February, so far this year isn't much better.
"Ya know, it's been on a bit of a slide. And I think some of that might have to do with what people like to call the economy," he said. "And not much of its had to do with the bite because we have enjoyed pretty good fishing over the last five years or so. So I would expect it's mostly outside influence."
Apart from the economy, Lundeen said, there's more competition from other retailers. He also said fishing regulations that restrict the number and size of walleye anglers can keep on the lake also impact business. This year, the so-called "slot-limit" on Mille Lacs changed so that anglers can keep walleye that are under 17 inches long, or over 28 inches. Last year, anglers had an extra inch, so they could keep walleye that were under 18 inches and over 28 inches.
"I don't think the inch is going to be what makes or breaks it," he said. "But as the pie keeps being divided I think that there's going to be people that will measure it against what they keep. Because let's face it, people still like to eat fish, and I may be their leader."
Every year biologists from the Department of Natural Resources and area Indian bands that also have fishing rights on Mille Lacs discuss the overall health and population of fish in the lake. Out of that meeting comes what's called the safe harvest level, or the total amount of fish that can come out of the lake.
The current five-year-management plan expires at the end of the year. A draft proposal recently submitted by the tribes fishing Mille Lacs could raise the bands' walleye take in the next five-year plan.
Jason Stark is a policy analyst with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission — an agency that represents the bands. He said the bands would only get more walleye if all eight of the bands that fish the lake come close to the quotas outlined in the proposed five-year plan. Even then, he said, it would be a small increase.
Stark said at this point the bands aren't taking all the walleye they're allowed in the current plan, and haven't for the last few years.
"If it hasn't peaked, it's approaching capacity," he said. "They're really starting where they left off with the ability to have their fishery grow, which is what any fishery wants to do ... They're being very conservative in their approach to their management."
Dirk Peterson, chief of fisheries management for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the agency will help the bands develop their own management plan.
"Any restriction in fishing has the potential to limit maybe some anglers maybe from visiting a site," Peterson said. "But we think that fishing will be good this year and that people will go to Mille Lacs."
Peterson said over the years area bands have slowly increased the amount of walleye they take. On average, the bands now take about one-quarter of the safe harvest level, leaving some 350,000 pounds this year for sport anglers, he said.
The DNR is reviewing the bands' new five-year proposal, but hasn't finalized its comments. A new five-year plan for Mille Lacs goes into effect next April.Fisheries Management Plan 2013-2017 Draft