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Walleye Shutdown? Mille Lacs Lake catch nears walleye limit

Mille Lacs Lake fishing guide Steve Fellegy holds a 26-inch walleye taken on his boat Tuesday, July 9, 2013, while fishing mud flats at the north end of the lake. Although fishing has been good on Mille Lacs, last fall's survey of walleyes was the lowest in the past 40 years. (Sam Cook/Duluth News Tribune)

Mille Lacs Lake is nearing its limit for walleye fishing,The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Tuesday.

A creel survey conducted last week on estimated walleye harvests, releases and kill on Mille Lacs Lake during the first two weeks of July showed drastic increases that could result in the state reaching the limit by July 29, the DNR said in a release.

Despite the ongoing challenges with the walleye population, other fishing on the lake remains strong and near record highs. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr stressed that anglers should take advantage of the continuation of liberal northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations on the lake.

"Mille Lacs Lake remains one of the premier fishing destinations in the state," Landwehr said in the release. "Northern pike and smallmouth bass are at or near record highs. Anglers should take advantage of the liberal regulations for these species. DNR tagging studies also indicate that muskies larger than 50 inches have never been more abundant."

During the first seven months of the monitoring period (December 2014 — June 2015) walleye harvest rates were at or below predicted levels, based on tight regulations adopted for the open-water season. Based upon those results, total harvest was expected to be below the State's 28,600-pound limit for this twelve-month period and the DNR's June 30 creel study showed the state was within 15,300 pounds of reaching the annual quota.

However, as of July 15, when the last angler survey was conducted, the state was within just 3,000 pounds of reaching the annual quota. Records also show it was only the second time in 30 years that Mille Lacs walleye catch rates in July were higher than the second half of June. This dramatic spike is believed to be due to unusual circumstances — including the high catch rates over the 4th of July and warm water temperatures (the third highest on record). Warm water greatly increases walleye mortality on fish that had to be released because they did not fall within the harvest slot. The so-called "hooking mortality" of walleyes that die after being released counts toward the state quota.

Gov. Mark Dayton has directed the DNR to wait until after the next creel survey which will cover the period from July 16 to July 31, to see if the most recent numbers are an aberration. During that time, officials at the DNR, the Office of Tourism, and Department of Employment and Economic Development will meet with resort owners and other affected stakeholders on Mille Lacs to discuss the situation and seek recommendations.

A federal court decision legally requires state officials to abide by the limit agreed upon with the eight Chippewa bands for each year. After the next creel report is received, the commissioner will take the necessary actions, the release said.

The release emphasized that if the state determines it has exceeded its harvest allotment, the commissioner will be legally required to suspend fishing for walleye on the lake.

The DNR has met with the Minnesota tribes who harvest on Mille Lacs, as well as the executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission on the situation and shared fisheries data with them. There is mutual concern to respond to the increased harvest and take steps necessary to protect the walleye population.

Earlier this year, the DNR also met with Mille Lacs Lake business owners and anglers to discuss the struggling walleye population and the risks of going over the lower quota. The DNR, Department of Employment and Economic Development, and Explore Minnesota Tourism will continue working with area resorts and businesses to gather their input, assess the impact of fishing conditions on area businesses, and work with the community as a decision is made on the continuation of the fishing season.

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