DNR chief: No guarantees for Mille Lacs winter walleye season

Ice fishing houses on Mille Lacs Lake
Ice fishing houses dot Lake Mille Lacs Lake every winter. The lake is one of the most popular destinations for ice fishing in the United States.
Timo Gans | AFP | Getty Images 2006

Despite Gov. Mark Dayton's call for a walleye ice fishing season this winter at Lake Mille Lacs, it's still not clear if the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will allow it.

An ice fishing season is vital for many resorts and businesses around the lake, especially after the open water walleye season was cut short this summer after the state exceeded its quota for how many fish anglers could take from the lake. Many resort owners say winter months account for up to 75 percent of their business.

On Thursday, Dayton told reporters it was "crucial that we have a good winter fishing season for Mille Lacs, and I will insist that there be one."

But on Friday, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Dayton's insistence does not guarantee the DNR will OK Mille Lacs walleye ice fishing.

Instead, DNR biologists will survey the walleye population in Mille Lacs over the next three weeks, he said. That includes setting 52 gill nets throughout the lake to determine the population size of spawning adult walleye, the size and distribution of those fish, and reams of other data.

"We're going to wait until we get the data to make any decisions," Landwehr told MPR News. "There's no proposals we're going to be putting out there before we really get a chance to sit down with the data, with the bands, and come up with what's biologically justifiable."

Asked how the DNR would respond if the data suggest there aren't enough walleye to allow any ice fishing harvest this winter, Landwehr said, it was too soon to speculate.

"The big danger we have to be aware of in our desire to provide a lot of opportunity is we do not want to ding that population further, because that just hurts us in the future," he said.

Dayton, he added, is not proposing the DNR bypass its scientific work "but rather work within the process to get the maximum opportunity for Minnesota anglers."

In mid-October the DNR will meet with biologists representing eight Ojibwe Indian bands that have treaty rights to harvest fish from Mille Lacs, to analyze that data and determine a safe allowable harvest of walleye from the lake.

Landwher says in those discussions the DNR will insist on as much fishing opportunity as possible for Minnesota anglers.

"We're hopeful that the data will support a season of some sort," he said.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has taken a different approach to the upcoming season. The band announced last month they will forego netting walleye on the lake next year. The other seven bands with treaty rights to the lake, including the Fond du Lac Band in Minnesota, have not yet announced their plans for next year.

In recent years the safe allowable harvest of walleye from Mille Lacs that's been identified by DNR and tribal biologists has plummeted, from 500,000 pounds in recent years to only 40,000 pounds this year.

Of that total, 28,600 pounds were reserved for state anglers with 11,400 pounds for the bands.

Biologists are perplexed by what's driving the decline in walleye in one of the state's largest and historically most productive walleye fisheries. They say plenty of young walleye are hatching, but many of those walleye are failing to reach adulthood, for what they suspect is a variety of complex reasons including invasive species, climate change, water clarity, and predation.

Tribal and state officials are anxious to see what data the survey nets reveal in Mille Lacs this fall, said James Zorn with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"We're in a situation now where I think everyone's going to wait with baited breath to see whether or not there would be enough walleye to even have a fishing season, for both the state and the tribes," he said.

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