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Mille Lacs fishing traffic way down, businesses say

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Bill Lundeen
Bill and Kathy Lundeen run Lundeen's Tackle Castle in Onamia, Minn. Lundeen says business is down compared with last summer in part because of the cold spring weather. But he also blames tighter fishing regulations for walleye imposed this year by the Department of Natural Resources.
Conrad Wilson

First it was the ice, huge chunks that hung on Lake Mille Lacs into May, crippling the fishing opener. Then gas prices broke $4 a gallon. Both nicked Bill Lundeen's bait business.

The ice receded and gas prices dropped, but the sport fishermen that drive so much of the Mille Lacs economy still have not come like in prior years.

The state this year slashed the number and size of walleye fishermen could take from Mille Lacs - the chief reason people go there. Officials say they had to do it for the long term health of the fishery. But Lundeen's Tackle Castle and other businesses with fortunes tied to the lake are paying the cost.

Tighter walleye fishing regulations are cutting deeply into revenues this summer. It may be that way for several years.

"Last summer is not what I'd call a great summer. But compared to this summer it was significantly better," said Lundeen, who runs the bait shop with his wife Kathy. Right off Highway 169, it's a gateway to fishing for anglers driving to the central Minnesota lake from the Twin Cities. But the this year's fishing regulations have dropped traffic dramatically. Fishing on Mille Lacs is down about 40 percent from the same period last year, according to the Department of Natural Resources data.

Terry McQuoid
Terry McQuoid owns McQuoids Inn near Isle on Lake Mille Lacs. He says he's having a record year for business, but acknowledges the part of his business most closely tied to the hard-core anglers has dropped off a bit. "They still come to fish, but they don't get to keep as many," McQuoid said. "Most of the people that I talk to are ok with that. I mean they'd love to keep a few more, there's no doubt about that -- but where else can you go and catch as many fish as what we've been catching?"
Conrad Wilson

"I think that there's a perception that there's something broken about Mille Lacs," Lundeen said.

The DNR says, in a way, the lake is broken. 

Last fall the agency measured a significant drop in the number of walleye in the lake. That led to the tighter fishing regulations.

This year, anglers on Mille Lacs can only  keep up to two walleye between 18 and 20 inches long or one in that slot and one trophy fish over 28 inches. Last year they could keep up to four walleye shorter than 17 inches, with one trophy fish allowed.

The deep cut in the number of walleye that could be caught and kept this year was enough to keep many fishermen and their money off the lake.

Up the road from the Lundeen's bait shop, Linda Eno says business at her Twin Pines Resort is down 50 percent from last year. But she's trying to stay positive. 

After all, fishing on the lake has been great. It's just that that anglers want to keep more walleye than this year's regulations allow.

Lundeen's Tackle Castle in Onamia
Lundeen's Tackle Castle is in Onamia, Minn., on the south end of Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota.
Conrad Wilson

"It's really sad," she said, "when you've got a gorgeous day like today and you can look out at St. Alban's Bay and ... Can I even see one boat?" Landings would normally be overflowing with trailers and trucks, she added. Now, "ya know if you see six you're lucky."

The stiffer limits are having the desired impact - the walleye catch is down by more than half, said Tom Jones, regional treaty coordinator in the DNR's Aitkin Area Fisheries Office. 

"The walleye population is going down and we need to reverse that trend," Jones said. "Did we achieve our goal for this year? Yeah, we did. But did we achieve our goal for the next five years? No we haven't. And so for the next five years things may also be tighter than people like to see."

The walleye population in Mille Lacs today could be one-third what it was in 2000, Jones said. 

The DNR is wrapping up a detailed population study that will give biologists a better sense of how many walleye are in Lake Mille Lacs. That study will serve as a background when business owners and officials from the agency meet this winter to discuss fishing regulations for next year.

It may not just be fishing that's contributing to the walleye's decline. Invasive species and climate change could be reducing the walleye's food supply and in turn the walleye population, Jones added. "The decrease in walleye is not trivial. It is a big decline. The concern we have is that if it's not mostly fishing that's caused that we don't know how high we can get it back."

Back on Lake Mille Lacs, there are pockets of good business amid the bad.

At McQuoid's Inn near Isle, owner Terry McQuoid says bookings for corporate retreats, family reunions and weddings have been strong all summer. So many people have come he bought another 30 passenger fishing boat -- the second one he's purchased this summer.

"Had the spring been just normal, this would've been our record breaking year," he said standing near his newly remodeled marina. "That's out of 22 years. So it's been very good."

There are fewer boats but the fishing is still good, he added. "You don't get to keep a lot of 'em. Most of the people that I talk to are OK with that."