DNR seeks comments on plan for managing Mille Lacs fishery

Anglers try their luck fishing Wednesday.
Anglers try their luck fishing in May 2017 near the west shoreline of Mille Lacs Lake.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2017

A plan by the Minnesota Department of Resources for managing the prized fisheries of Mille Lacs Lake is undergoing public review.

It will be the first such management plan for Mille Lacs, which is co-managed by eight Ojibwe bands that retain fishing rights on the lake. The DNR has completed similar plans for other large Minnesota lakes.

The DNR sets the amount of fish anglers are permitted to harvest each year, using estimates of the number of fish in the lake. Anglers on Mille Lacs have faced tighter restrictions in recent years on when and whether they’re allowed to keep walleye they catch, as the DNR has sought to boost the walleye population. Regulations for the 2021 open water season have not yet been announced.

In some years, the lake has been temporarily closed to walleye angling due to concerns about hooking mortality, which is when fish die after they’re caught and released. 

The draft plan doesn’t set specific limits for walleye, but does outline goals to guide the DNR’s management decisions — including balancing angling pressure with concerns about the long-term health and sustainability of the fish populations.

The management plan has been in the works for some time. During public input meetings in the summer of 2019, most people said they don't want unexpected shutdowns of walleye fishing on the lake, said Tom Heinrich, Mille Lacs area fisheries supervisor for the DNR. 

“In the case of walleye, the overwhelming response we got was that people wanted the ability to fish without any kind of a closure,” he said. “The second priority was if there was going to be a closure, that it shouldn't be an unplanned closure.”

Anglers also want the ability to keep some walleye when the population is high enough, Heinrich said.

The plan highlights some of the changes the lake has undergone in recent decades. Two invasive species — zebra mussels and spiny water flea — have reduced the amount of zooplankton, an important food source for young fish.

Due to climate change and improvements in water quality, Mille Lacs also has gotten increasingly clear and warm. That doesn’t benefit walleye, which prefer cool, darker water.

But perhaps the lake’s biggest challenge, Heinrich said, is its proximity to the Twin Cities metro area.

"It's got a history of being very popular with walleye anglers,” he said. “And the distance that we are from the Cities, people can respond very, very quickly with whether they want to come up here and fish or not. And so if you've got a hot bite on Mille Lacs Lake, people respond.”

The plan also sets maximum size limits for northern pike and smallmouth bass. 

The draft plan is available on the DNR’s website. The public has until April 2 to comment. A virtual public hearing is scheduled for March 23.

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