DNR: Mille Lacs anglers can keep a walleye a day in winter ice fishing

John Odle, Jr., preps ice houses.
John Odle, Jr., co-owner of Rocky Reef Resort, preps ice houses Thursday, January 14, 2016 on Lake Mille Lacs near Onamia, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Anglers on Lake Mille Lacs will be allowed to keep one walleye per day again this ice-fishing season, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Tuesday.

This will be the third winter in a row in which anglers will be able to take home a catch a day from the iconic lake, where concern over a decline in the walleye population has led to stricter fishing regulations. Walleye fishing on Mille Lacs has been catch-and-release only for the past three summers.

The DNR said studies this year show the lake's walleye population is increasing, but the number of walleye hatched in certain years remain average or below normal.

Starting Dec. 1, anglers will be allowed to keep one walleye per day that's between 21 and 23 inches long, or over 28 inches long. There are no restrictions on whether or not anglers can use live bait.

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The slot limits are targeted toward mature female fish, which showed the largest population gains in the DNR's recent studies.

The DNR set the regulations for ice fishing after completing its annual fall assessment of Mille Lacs' the fish population of Mille Lacs using gill nets. Researchers also caught fish last spring, marked them and recaptured them to estimate the lake's fish population. The regulations are adjusted every year based on the number of walleye the DNR feels can be safely harvested.

"It's good news that anglers will be able to harvest walleye again this winter," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said stated in a news release Tuesday.

"We expected the population to go up, and it certainly has responded," he said.

The population estimate this year found 727,000 walleye that were 14 inches or longer. Four years ago, there were an estimated 250,000 walleye at that size.

The fall assessment also estimated the populations of young perch and tullibee, which are walleyes' main food source. Those populations were lower than DNR researchers had hoped they would be.

That could mean good news for anglers, Parsons said: Walleye might be biting this winter because there's less food available. But weather and ice conditions also play a role, he said.

The last several years of restrictions on walleye fishing on Mille Lacs have been controversial with businesses and others that depend on anglers and tourism for their livelihood. They have argued that the walleye population on the lake is more abundant than the DNR's estimates.

Parsons said it's too early to say whether Mille Lacs anglers will be able to keep any of their catch next summer. Over the winter, DNR researchers will use modeling to calculate a safe harvest limit, Parsons said.

Given the fall assessment numbers, he said he's "optimistic" that there could be an opportunity for a limited harvest next year.