MINNEAPOLIS — Fisheries managers on Wednesday imposed the tightest restrictions yet on Mille Lacs Lake, allowing anglers to keep only one walleye per day instead of two for the upcoming season and renewing a night fishing ban on the popular but struggling lake north of the Twin Cities.
The new regulations will let sport anglers on Mille Lacs keep one walleye 19 to 21 inches long, or one over 28 inches. Last year, they could keep two walleye 18 to 20 inches long, or one longer than 28 inches. This year's night walleye ban will take effect on the Monday after the May 9 season opener and run to Dec. 1, but it includes an exception to allow night muskellunge and archery fishing starting June 8.
Department of Natural Resources officials said the restrictions are necessary to keep the walleye harvest within the established safe level, a target cut from 60,000 pounds last season to 40,000 pounds for 2015, and to preserve the lake's abundant spawning stock of larger walleyes. Sport anglers have been allotted up to 28,600 pounds of the total, while eight Ojibwe bands with treaty rights can take up to 11,400 pounds of walleye.
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said the rules are meant to minimize the odds of needing to go to catch-and-release-only walleye fishing later in the season. He said all indications are that the walleyes will be biting well this spring, which will make staying under the quota considerably harder than last year.
Pereira disputed the suggestion that the new regulations amount to allowing only catch-and-release walleye fishing. He estimated that the lake holds between 50,000 to 100,000 walleyes within the 19-to-21-inch slot.
Smallmouth bass regulations that were loosened last year to provide alternative fishing opportunities remain the same, while the liberalized northern pike rules meant to reduce predation on young walleyes have been tightened a notch to protect bigger northerns.
Pereira said the fundamental problem with Mille Lacs' walleyes has been the low survival of walleyes between one and three years old. But he said walleyes hatched in 2013 seem to be doing very well. He said the survival of that class and future classes will be the key.
At Twin Pines Resort near Garrison, owner Bill Eno said he expects the second straight year of low limits will be another blow to business.
"Historically this is a walleye lake and this is why people come to this lake," he said. "The amount of people who come to this lake for smallmouth and northerns is probably less than 3 percent."
But Terry McQuoid, owner of McQuoid's Inn near Isle, said his customers come mostly for the fun rather than just to keep fish. And he said ice anglers on his bay were catching 20 to 40 walleyes a day recently so he expects the hot action to continue.
"We're going to have good numbers of fish to catch," he said. "Catch them and turn them loose. At least we're catching fish."