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DNR puts guides, scientist on panel to study Mille Lacs walleye woes

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The walleye statue in Garrison, Minn.
The walleye statue in Garrison, Minn., sits next to Lake Mille Lacs.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

State officials on Tuesday named 17 people to a panel to study the Lake Mille Lacs fishery and recommend changes intended to grow the lake's shrinking walleye population.

The panel, which includes fishing guides, business owners and other stakeholders, is the latest in a series of state efforts to save Mille Lacs walleye fishing and improve communication around the famed central Minnesota fishing lake. This group differs from past Mille Lacs advisory groups in that it includes a broader diversity of viewpoints, including anglers from across the state, said Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

"Obviously we're going to put a lot of stock in what they recommend, but it is still advisory," said Landwehr, who appointed the panel members. "Ultimately, the DNR and/or the Legislature, if it's legislative proposals, have to put them forward."

The DNR had previously announced it would create a new fisheries office to focus exclusively on Mille Lacs. It plans to assign a new Mille Lacs project leader, add a new outreach specialist and provide more staff support for monitoring and technical issues on the lake.

The department also plans to launch a pilot walleye stocking effort on Mille Lacs next year, despite suggestions from its own scientists that stocking would likely have little impact in helping the walleye population rebound.

The DNR closed the lake's walleye fishing season early on Aug. 3 when the state exceeded its quota. The move triggered widespread anger among many businesses and resort owners around the lake whose livelihoods depend on walleye fishing. It also led Gov. Mark Dayton to propose a special session to address those financial hardships and to insist that the DNR set a walleye ice fishing season this winter.

DNR biologists are currently analyzing results from September netting surveys to estimate the lake's walleye population. On Oct. 15-16, they'll meet with biologists from several Indian bands that co-manage the lake's walleye fishery to determine the "safe allowable harvest" of walleye from Mille Lacs for the 2016 fishing season. The DNR expects to get recommendations from its panel the week of Oct. 19.

Landwehr said the department will make a decision on a Mille Lacs winter walleye season by the end of October after reviewing the data and recommendations.

Landwehr also announced the DNR has hired Roger Hugill, a retired DNR fisheries biologist, as the new project leader who will head up a new fisheries office focused exclusively on Mille Lacs.

The DNR plans to initially lease office space along the lake. But the department intends to request bond funds during the 2016 legislative session to build a new fisheries management facility and cool-water hatchery at the lake.

Here's the DNR's list of people serving on the new Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, which will meet for the first time on Thursday at 6 p.m. at McQuoid's Inn in Isle, Minn. The meetings are open to the public.

Angling representatives
Mark Utne, Isle; Cheryl Larson, Wahkon; Tony Roach, Willow River; Tom Neustrom, Grand Rapids; Steven Besser, Litchfield; and Peter Perovich, Ramsey

Business representatives
Tina Chapman, Chapman's Mille Lacs Resort & Guide Service, local liaison to Explore Minnesota Tourism, Isle; Eddy Lyback, Lyback's Ice Fishing and Lyback's Marine, Wahkon; Steve Kulifaj, The Red Door Resort, Aitkin; Steven Johnson, Johnson's Portside, East Township; William Eno, Twin Pines Resort and launch service, Garrison; and Dean Hanson, Agate Bay Resort and launch service, Isle

Local officials
Mille Lacs County Commissioner David Oslin, Aitkin County Commissioner Laurie Westerlund, and Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering

Mille Lacs Band representative
Jamie Edwards, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

Academic representative
Paul Venturelli, Fisheries Program, University of Minnesota