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Fishing effort and walleye catch rates soared on Lake Mille Lacs over the first 23 days of the season, but the pounding hasn't changed the lake's quota-driven fishing plan for 2020, Minnesota fisheries chief Brad Parsons said Thursday.

The head-spinning measurements of activity on the big lake, as reported in the most recent creel survey by the Department of Natural Resources, mesh with reports by fishing guides, bait store owners and conservation officers. Fishing on Mille Lacs has been bonkers, they say.

"Mille Lacs is where I make my living and this is the busiest I've seen it in a decade,'' said Brad Hawthorne, owner of Hawthorne Guide Service in Garrison, Minn. "People are catching fish and having a great time.''

Parsons said anglers fished for a combined 230,000 hours from opening day on May 9 until the end of the month. The effort exceeded last year's May fishing by 40,000 hours. That's extra impressive when you consider that anglers last May could keep one walleye. This year on Mille Lacs, it's all catch-and-release.

May's daily average of 10,000 fishing hours was double the pressure exerted on Mille Lacs during the months of May from 2015 through 2018, Parsons said.

Meanwhile, the walleye catch rate this May averaged .84 fish per hour, a 68% increase over the strong bite anglers enjoyed last year.

"It's the highest we've seen in five years,'' Parsons said. "It's really, really, really good.''

Based on hooking mortality studies, the one-two punch of high catch rates and extra fishing effort meant that 5,500 pounds of walleyes (about 2,200 fish) died from being caught and released. That was nearly three times the hooking mortality a year ago and it counts against Minnesota's 2020 walleye allocation of 87,800 pounds.

Mille Lacs is comanaged by DNR and eight Chippewa bands who abide by a smaller quota. Biologists from both sides have documented a decline in the ability of young walleyes to thrive and mature in the lake, and they've imposed restrictions to protect the species from overharvest.

But so far this year, Parsons said, the state's winter walleye harvest combined with hooking mortality in May, was similar overall to last year. The plan is for walleye fishing to close in July and reopen Aug. 1 for catch-and-release through the fall.

"At this point there's no plans to change anything,'' Parsons said. "As we get results for June and getting into July we'll just keep an eye on it.''

He said the fishing effort is up all over the state because license sales have jumped during the coronavirus pandemic.

One explanation for the strong walleye bite on Mille Lacs is that the fish went into the winter undernourished. They were skinnier and hungrier than average during fall netting surveys, he said.

Fisheries biologists are hoping for hearty new crops of tullibees and perch this year to boost the lake's forage base. Parsons said the extraordinary 2013 year class of walleyes — now upward of 18 inches in size — still dominates the lake's walleye population. The class born in 2017 also looks strong, but other classes since 2013 have been disappointing or average.

Jammed launches

Hawthorne said both of his guide boats have been booked solid. Bass trips, he said, are booked-out for the next month and a half. Even on weekdays, boats and trailers have been jamming public access facilities. A heavy turnout by bass and muskie anglers is adding to the crush, he said.

On a recent Monday, Hawthorne launched his boat at a public access and parked his trailer there for the day. When he came off in the late afternoon, his rig was pinned in by other vehicles. He detached his trailer and walked it to the landing.

"A lot of people have discovered Mille Lacs or rediscovered it this year,'' Hawthorne said.

DNR aerial surveillance consistently has counted more than 1,000 boats on the lake on weekend days and only slightly less traffic on the weekdays. "That's a very high number of boaters,'' said Lt. Robert Gorecki, DNR enforcement supervisor for the Mille Lacs area.

He has noticed "lots of bass guys from out of state'' in addition to the sustained crush of walleye anglers.

By mid-June in past years, the walleye bite has tailed off on Mille Lacs. This year the bite has persisted, Gorecki said, adding his 7-year-old son has been catching walleyes without much assistance.

"Fish are biting whether it's blue sunny skies, or cloudy and windy,'' he said.

During the busy winter season on Mille Lacs, conservation officers wrote 700 tickets in one 56-day stretch. Overharvest was a common violation.

By comparison, Gorecki said, officers have reported good compliance with this season's catch-and-release walleye rule.

"This summer I've been extremely impressed with compliance,'' Gorecki said. "The number of people keeping fish is low compared to other years.''

Amy Carlson, manager at Tutt's Bait & Tackle in Garrison, said boat landings on Mille Lacs have been packed since opening day.

"Business in here has been phenomenal and so far it's been pretty phenomenal out on the lake,'' she said.

Carlson said she understands the need for a one-month shutdown of walleye fishing in July. But she wishes the one-walleye bag limit during winter could be extended throughout the year.

"There certainly seems to be enough fish,'' she said.