Updated: 6:50 p.m. | Posted: 3:25 p.m.
Warm weather and a strong catch mean the walleye fishing season on Mille Lacs Lake may end sooner than expected, Minnesota officials said Tuesday.
Surveys last week on estimated walleye harvests, releases and kills on Mille Lacs in the first two weeks of July showed the lake was within 3,000 pounds of reaching the annual limit set by the state. That was a dramatic change from June 30, when surveys estimated 15,300 pounds remained.
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Department of Natural Resources officials blamed the spike on the high catch rates over the Fourth of July holiday and water temperatures they said were the third warmest on record.
Walleyes that die after being released count toward the state quota and "warm water greatly increases walleye mortality on fish that had to be released because they did not fall within the harvest slot," the DNR said in a statement.
The updated catch data may lead officials to close the walleye season on Mille Lacs as soon as Aug. 3.
Gov. Mark Dayton has instructed the DNR to hold off closing the season until after the next survey, which will cover the period from July 16 to July 31, to see if the most recent numbers are an aberration, agency official said.
Walleye numbers in Mille Lacs have been a growing concern for the DNR. Minnesota's best known walleye fishery received its tightest restrictions when the DNR announced in April that anglers on Mille Lacs would be allowed to keep only one walleye daily this season instead of two.
State conservation, jobs and tourism leaders are expected to meet soon with Mille Lacs-area resort owners and others who could be hurt by a shortened walleye season to discuss the situation and seek recommendations.
"They've already kept so many fishermen away from the lake this year, with one fish limit," said Bill Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort."Now to compound it even worse, you know it's very, very devasting for the business owners, the people that live on the lake. It's bad news for everyone up here."
Officials said it will take time for the walleye population to recover. They also urged anglers to take advantage of ongoing liberal northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations on the lake and noted that tagging studies indicate that muskies larger than 50 inches "have never been more abundant."
Terry McQuoid, who has been a fishing guide on Mille Lacs for 42 years, said the more liberal regulations on northern pike and smallmouth bass helped his business. He's not surprised by a possible walleye closure because the fishing this year has "been phenomenal."
"It's not what we wanted, but it is something that's going to happen," McQuoid said. "We're going to get through it, the boats are still going to keep going."
The overall walleye harvest on Mille Lacs was cut by about a third this year, to 40,000 pounds. That's split between sport anglers and eight Native American bands that retained fishing rights to the lake through an 1837 treaty. The state's share amounts to more than 28,000 pounds.
"I think the tribes are grateful that the state is being very serious about this, that they're committed to the resource," said Jim Zorn, executive director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which helps tribes manage their walleye resource. "And they're looking forward to continuing to work together with the state to make sure we can turn this walleye population around."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.