MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota could be forced to close walleye fishing on Mille Lacs Lake as early as Aug. 3 because anglers are just 3,000 pounds shy of exceeding the state's quota for the season on the popular but struggling lake, Department of Natural Resources officials said Tuesday.
"This is a pretty painful time we're in," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told reporters. "We've got to make some tough choices."
Landwehr urged anglers to target the lake's abundant northern pike and smallmouth bass instead.
It would be the first time the state has had to close the walleye season on Mille Lacs, one of the state's most popular fishing destinations. But with walleye numbers at a 30-year low, the state's quota was set at just 28,600 pounds this season. Size rules were tightened and the bag limit was cut to one. The eight Ojibwe bands with treaty rights on Mille Lacs are allowed 11,400 pounds this season, and they've taken all but about 1,000 pounds of their share.
The lake has seen a spike in the total kill in the first two weeks of this month, driven by high catch rates over the Independence Day holiday weekend and more deaths among walleyes that are caught and released, Landwehr said.
That death rate, known as hooking mortality, rises along with temperatures and Mille Lacs is experiencing its third-warmest water on record, DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said. Those losses count against the state's quota.
If creel survey data from the rest of the month show that state is close to exceeding its quota or has already gone over, the DNR will have to close the walleye season, Landwehr said. But the northern pike, smallmouth bass and muskellunge seasons will remain open.
It's too early to say how ice fishing may be affected this winter, Pereira said.
DNR researchers are still trying to determine why Mille Lacs' walleye population has fallen and how to revive it. They say a major reason is that fewer young walleye have been surviving to maturity, but the reasons aren't well understood.