The announcement that Mille Lacs will go catch and release only for the season comes as a surprise.
In the biggest news to hit Minnesota walleye season in the state's history, the newly set Mille Lacs walleye fishing regulations will require catch and release, and no live bait will be allowed beginning with the May 14, 2016 season opener through December 1.
This is the first time that live bait will not be allowed on the lake, and the Department of Natural Resources says the catch and release requirement is designed to protect and continue to rebuild the walleye population in the famous lake.
In the surprising move's official release, DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said "A catch-and-release walleye season allows us to protect future spawners yet acknowledges the desire that fishing remain open. Not allowing harvest is a difficult decision but it provides our best option."
Anglers targeting muskie and northern pike are allowed to use suckers longer than eight inches, but all other anglers, and specifically the huge crowds of walleye fishermen who visit the lake every season, must use artificial bait.
Other changed regulations for the 2016 season on Mille Lacs include:
- Walleye: Night closure beginning Monday, May 16, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and continuing through December 1. Muskie anglers may fish at night but all baits, live or artificial, in possession must be at least 8 inches long.
- Northern pike: Five fish with only one longer than 40 inches. All northern 30-40 inches long must be immediately released. The "earn a trophy" provision has been removed.
- Bass: Four fish with only one longer than 21 inches (down from six last year). All fish 17-21 inches long must be immediately released.
"These new regulations reflect the DNR's commitment to continue providing world-class fishing at one of Minnesota's premier vacation destinations," Pereira said. Undoubtedly, those who rely on the vacation destination the Mille Lacs area becomes during the annual walleye season will be keeping a watchful eye on how the announcement affects turnout and business. The towns of Garrison, Onamia, Wahkon, Isle, and Malmo
The DNR and Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission established a safe walleye harvest level for this year at 40,000 pounds, with 28,600 allocated to state anglers and 11,400 for tribal fishing. According to the release, allowing fishing beyond those limits increases the risk on the walleye population and a federal court decision requires that walleye fishing be suspended.
Last year walleye anglers were allowed to keep one fish 19-21 inches long or longer than 28 inches, and the season closed temporarily, in August, due to high pressure and other factors. The walleye season opened again on December 1, 2015 with a limit of one 18-20 inches or one longer than 28 inches.
"The possibility of closing Mille Lacs to walleye fishing is greater this year than it was last," Pereira said in the release. "Even with our catch-and-release approach, the risk remains considerable."
Here's more, directly from the DNR release:
"Concern stems from the additional pressure that hooking mortality - an estimate of the number of fish that die after being caught and returned to the water - has on walleye harvest. Hooking mortality rates also increase as water temperatures warm. Both factors are at play in Mille Lacs this year.
"The DNR expects more small- and intermediate-sized fish to be caught, including fish hatched in 2013 that biologists are counting on to rebuild Mille Lacs' walleye population. These immature fish, which are approaching a more catchable but comparatively small size of 14 inches and longer, need to be protected so they can spawn. Ice is opening on lakes earlier this year, increasing the likelihood that water temperatures will warm faster and sooner."
As the news rolls out and reactions are made, the historic announcement will surely be debated among area fishermen and business owners. How the decision ultimately impacts the fishing season will remain to be seen, but we'll keep you informed as the dates draw near.