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DNR OKs 1 daily walleye keeper on Mille Lacs in May

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Brian Hammarsten of Minnetrista unhooks a walleye.
Brian Hammarsten of Minnetrista unhooks a walleye he caught on Lake Mille Lacs in July 2017. For a few weeks this spring, Lake Mille Lacs anglers will be able to get to keep one walleye when they go out fishing.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

For a few weeks this spring, Lake Mille Lacs anglers will be able to get to keep one walleye when they go out fishing. It's a small but significant change after several seasons of catch-and-release-only.

Anglers during this year's open-water season can keep one walleye between 21 and 23 inches or one walleye over 28 inches from the start of fishing season on May 11 until May 31, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday. Catch-and-release fishing for walleye returns on June 1.

The DNR in February signaled that it would allow some walleye keepers this spring on Mille Lacs, after years of a catch-and-release-only policy that frustrated anglers and local resorts around the iconic central Minnesota lake.

"It's good news that anglers get to keep some walleye this May, but we are being cautious," Brad Parsons, DNR fisheries chief, said in a statement Tuesday announcing the open-water rules for walleye and other fishing on Mille Lacs. "These regulations represent a careful balance between expanding fishing opportunities and conserving the fishery for the future."

Mille Lacs' walleye population had fallen significantly in recent years, and officials have struggled to balance the demands of local businesses dependent on walleye fishing with the need to rebuild the fishery.

In 2016, the DNR went to catch-and-release only and banned the use of live bait.

The move triggered waves of anger. That August, Gov. Mark Dayton intervened to keep the season open after the DNR moved to close it earlier than anticipated.

In 2017, the DNR not only closed Mille Lacs to walleye keepers, it stopped all walleye fishing for about a month in mid-summer, the peak of the season, to cut down on the hooking mortality of walleye that were caught and released but still didn't survive being caught. Last year's open water rules were essentially a continuation of 2017.

Last month, though, the DNR said that after three years of "very conservative fishing regulations," walleye were now "at a level where we can cautiously allow anglers to start keeping some fish during the open-water season."