One of Minnesota's most popular fishing lakes is likely to see tight restrictions this summer to help its walleye population recover.
Officials from the Department of Natural Resources presented options to a packed meeting residents and business owners in the Mille Lacs Lake area on Wednesday night.
"We are fully committed to doing whatever is necessary to improve the walleye population as fast, fairly and efficiently as possible," said Dirk Peterson, DNR fisheries chief. "Mille Lacs is one of the premier walleye lakes in Minnesota and continues to be a great place to fish. However, we need to reduce walleye mortality on certain sized fish and that will translate into different regulations for the upcoming season."
Tom Jones, the DNR's treaties manager, told them anglers likely will only be able to keep a narrow size range of walleyes they catch from Mille Lacs, perhaps only walleyes between 18 and 20 inches long -- and the limit may drop to two.
However, Jones says the DNR will probably liberalize regulations to promote fishing for smallmouth bass and northern pike, which prey on young walleyes.
Other options discussed included a possible ban on night fishing, which drew strong opposition from resort owners.
"The DNR is taking a broader look at regulation options because the safe harvest is at the lowest level since treaty management began in 1997, and a new length-based regulation by itself may not be sufficient," Peterson said.
Currently, anglers are required to immediately release walleye between 17-28 inches. The possession limit per person is four, with only one fish longer than 28 inches allowed.
A decision on slot limit length, daily bag limits, and other potential options to reduce walleye mortality is expected in early March. The DNR will take additional public comments on the proposals via e-mail.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WALLEYE?
According to the DNR, walleye within the range of 14-18 inches have been heavily harvested from the lake, especially males. Officials say that is because slot limits allowed anglers to keep that size fish and tribal nets also selectively catch fish in that size group; however, the Chippewa bands are voluntarily reducing their harvest allocation by half for the 2013 season in light of the population estimates.
Other factors include emerging challenges presented by invasive species like Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny waterfleas and zebra mussels. DNR officials say that while the impact and interactions of those species are not well understood, they make managing the lake increasingly unpredictable.
"There's a lot we know about Mille Lacs Lake, but it is a complex system and there's much we don't know, too," Peterson said. "What anglers should know is that we are committed to fixing this problem and providing quality walleye fishing for generations to come."
Warmer weather patterns have also resulted in lower numbers of tullibee and a higher hooking mortality rate as the lake's temperature rises.
Peterson said the rapid reduction in population means it is imperative to protect the lake's large 2008 walleye because there is currently no strong year class coming behind them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.