Walleyes will be fair game on Mille Lacs for the first 17 days of the fishing season as long as anglers abide by a special one-fish bag limit set by the Department of Natural Resources.
The regulation, announced Tuesday, is a departure from last year, when state-licensed anglers on the big lake could keep walleyes only in the fall. There's hope for another fall harvest season this year, but only if there's room under the state's 2021 walleye allocation of 87,800 pounds.
"We're glad Mille Lacs anglers will have the chance to keep a walleye on opening weekend and Memorial Day weekend — two of the most popular times to fish during the year," State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said.
A decision on fall fishing will be made by the DNR in August, but projections strongly suggest that keepers will be allowed, Parsons said. A light winter harvest on Mille Lacs — about half what it was a year ago — opened up more chances for open-water anglers, he said.
From May 15 to May 31, the walleye bag limit on Mille Lacs will be one fish 21 to 23 inches long or one longer than 28 inches. In June, walleye fishing will be catch-and-release. Last year, walleye fishing was closed on Mille Lacs for all of July. This year, the July closure has been shortened to cover the first 15 days.
The one-fish walleye limit could resume Sept. 16, through Nov. 30. During the late season, the DNR also will allow anglers to fish until midnight. At other times, with the exception of opening weekend, walleye fishing hours on Mille Lacs will run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Parsons said the July shutdowns are designed to lessen estimated hooking mortality — the tendency for fish to die after being caught and released. As water temperatures increase, so does the rate of hooking mortality. The estimates count against the state's harvest allotment. In 2019, when walleye fishing wasn't closed in July, there was an unexpected shutdown of the fishery in early September due to an overrun of the state's allotment. Contributing to the overrun was an incredibly hot bite in May of that year, when anglers could keep one walleye.
Tom Neustrom, a professional fishing guide who sits on the DNR's Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, said a good number of stakeholders in the group favored the approach taken by the DNR this year. The agency first presented the option last month during a review of various scenarios designed to keep Minnesota within its 2021 harvest limit.
"By being able to keep a larger fish, you can at least have a decent meal," Neustrom said.
Neustrom said he and other committee members were disappointed that Minnesota couldn't boost its 2021 harvest allocation with thousands of pounds of capacity that went unused last year. He also said this year's regulations don't satisfy the desire by many anglers to keep smaller walleyes.
Tom Heinrich, Mille Lacs area fisheries supervisor for DNR, said the agency decided against an option for allowing smaller-sized keepers. For one thing, computer modeling predicted clear overruns of the state's harvest quota. For another, the agency wants to protect walleye spawning power in the lake by allowing different age classes of fish (grouped by birth year) to contribute to reproduction.
The Mille Lacs walleye population is dominated by the class of 2013. The bulk of those fish will be too small for keeping this year while others will become table fare in the 21-to-23 inch range, Heinrich said. The next biggest age class of walleyes was born in 2017.
Mille Lacs has its own set of walleye harvest rules because the fish are scarce and the state comanages the lake with eight Chippewa bands that have treaty rights. The parties agreed to a harvest split the same as a year ago of 87,800 pounds of walleye for the state and 33,113 pounds for the bands.