Mille Lacs Lake: Building a sustainable future

Special Notice

Walleye fishing on Mille Lacs Lake closed at 10 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, because walleye harvest by anglers has exceeded the state's allotment for 2015 by more than 2,000 pounds. The closure will continue through Monday, Nov. 30.

Other fish species including smallmouth bass, northern pike and muskellunge remain abundant in the lake. Fishing for these species remains open with loosened regulations for bass and northern pike that allow anglers to keep more of what they catch.

Learn more about Mille Lacs Lake, the season closure and what DNR is doing to rebuild the walleye population.

View Mille Lacs: A System Under Change
View a presentation that explains what's happening at Mille Lacs Lake and what steps DNR is taking to restore the lake's renowned walleye fishery.

Improving Mille Lacs Lake's walleye fishery as expediently as possible with as little negative impact to the local community as possible is the state's primary goal.

The situation will not turn around for several years. It will take time – as well as careful management, monitoring and analysis – for enough smaller walleyes to grow into the larger walleyes that anglers prefer to catch and that can contribute to future reproduction.

Even so, Mille Lacs remains a quality sport fishery. In addition to high numbers of large walleye, excellent quality fishing exists for northern pike, smallmouth bass and muskellunge.

Time and experience have proven that Mille Lacs is a resilient multi-species fishery for the anglers of Minnesota and tourists beyond our borders. A combination of regulations friendly to small walleye and cooperation among all users now will build and enhance the long-term sustainability of the fishery.

 

2015 Fishing Season

Fishing 2015 FAQ

Changes & Impacts

Lake FAQ

Newsletter

Strong catch, warm weather push angler catch over state quota

DNR announced Aug. 2 that walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs will close at 10 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, because walleye harvest by anglers has exceeded the state's allotment for 2015 by more than 2,000 pounds. The closure will continue through Monday, Nov. 30.

During the first seven months of the monitoring period (December 2014 – June 2015) walleye harvest rates were at or below predicted levels, based on tight regulations adopted for the open-water season. Based upon those results, total harvest was expected to be below the state's 28,600-pound limit for this twelve-month period and the DNR's June 30 creel study showed the state was within 15,300 pounds of reaching the annual quota.

Despite restrictive regulations implemented earlier this year, unexpected increases in fishing pressure, catch rates and hooking mortality in July pushed the harvest by state-licensed anglers to more than 30,700 pounds. The state's allocation was 28,600 pounds of the 2015 total safe harvest of 40,000 pounds. Tribal harvest was approximately 1,200 pounds below the tribes' 11,400-pound walleye limit.

Other fishing on the lake remains strong and near record highs. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr stressed that anglers should take advantage of the continuation of liberal northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations on the lake.

Collaboration

There is mutual concern to respond to the increased harvest and take steps necessary to protect Mille Lacs' walleye population.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe announced July 31 that it will not net walleye during the 2016 season. The DNR is committed to working with all stakeholders to make additional progress.

To help alleviate the economic challenges facing local businesses, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders will meet to discuss emergency relief legislation and a special session to pass it. Dayton supports a financial aid package consisting of no-interest loans, property tax abatements and additional funding for tourism advertising. The governor also has directed the DNR to aggressively address the issues related to the decline of the lake?s walleye population.

The future

Despite this year’s low walleye population, DNR fishery surveys have shown this year that there may be good news on the horizon. Biologists are seeing a large population of young walleyes hatched in 2013. Walleyes in that group are currently 10-to 13-inches long. It is important to protect those fish so they can contribute to future angling success and walleye production.

2015 regulations

For Mille Lacs Lake fishing regulations, see fishing regulations at Mille Lacs Lake for the 2015 season.

Click a question to view or hide the answer

Can I fish for walleye on Mille Lacs?

The DNR announced Aug. 2 that walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs will close at 10 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, because walleye harvest by anglers has exceeded the state's allotment for 2015 by more than 2,000 pounds. The closure will continue through Monday, Nov. 30.

 

How far was Mille Lacs quota exceeded?

Despite restrictive regulations implemented earlier this year, unexpected increases in fishing pressure, catch rates and hooking mortality in July pushed the harvest by state-licensed anglers to more than 30,700 pounds. The state's allocation was 28,600 pounds of the 2015 total safe harvest of 40,000 pounds. Tribal harvest was approximately 1,200 pounds below the tribes' 11,400-pound walleye limit.

 

How will the closure of Mille Lacs' walleye season be enforced when it is possible that people fishing for other species, such as bass and northern pike, may catch walleye?

Intentionally fishing for or keeping walleye is not legal and will be enforced. While DNR recognizes that walleye may be caught while fishing for other species, there are often techniques that can be used to reduce incidental walleye catch while still being effective for the target species. To help accomplish walleye recovery and support future tourism and local business, anglers are encouraged to use baits or presentations that are less likely to catch walleye, while still being effective for the other species.

 

What will happen to people intentionally fishing for walleye?

Those found guilty will pay a fine of $185, pay an additional $30 restitution for each illegal fish and have their fishing equipment confiscated.

 

Does the night fishing closure remain in effect?

Yes. No one may fish for any species or possess fishing gear on the lake from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. From June 8 to December 1, fishing equipment may be in possession, but may not be used to fish except (a) while muskellunge angling, muskellunge may be targeted with artificial lures longer than 8" or sucker minnows longer that 8", no possession of tackle or bait not specifically used for muskellunge, no possession or targeting of species other than muskellunge, or (b) while bow fishing for rough fish, no possession of angling equipment and only rough fish may be in possession.

 

Will creel surveys continue on Mille Lacs?

Yes. Information about what fish anglers catch, keep and release will continue to be collected through Oct. 31. Harvest and catch information will be collected for bass, northern pike and all other species, including any walleye that are inadvertently caught.

 

What are fisheries managers doing now that Mille Lacs' walleye season is closed?

There is mutual concern to respond to the increased harvest and take steps necessary to protect and improve Mille Lacs' walleye population. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe announced July 31 that it will not net walleye during the 2016 season. DNR is committed to working with all stakeholders to make additional progress.

 

Are there plans to address economic concerns for the region?

To help alleviate the economic challenges facing local businesses, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders will meet to discuss emergency relief legislation and a special session to pass it. Dayton supports a financial aid package consisting of no-interest loans, property tax abatements and additional funding for tourism advertising. The governor also has directed the DNR to aggressively address the issues related to the decline of the lake's walleye population.

 

How could this happen so quickly? Didn't the DNR estimate that the current regulation would allow anglers to continue this summer with a one-fish limit?

Records show that this was only the second time in 30 years that Mille Lacs walleye catch rates in July were higher than the second half of June. This dramatic spike is believed to be due to unusual circumstances - including the high catch rates over the 4th of July and warm water temperatures (the third highest on record).

 

It's been warm this summer too. Did that affect the quota?

Yes. In July, water temperatures in Mille Lacs hit their third highest on historical record. Warm water greatly increases walleye mortality on fish that had to be released because they did not fall within the harvest slot. The so-called "hooking mortality" of walleyes that die after being released counts toward the state quota.

 

Did warmer temperatures impact large, breeding-size walleye?

Yes. When more big walleye die, the quota is reached more quickly. The quota is calculated in pounds and bigger fish are heavier than smaller fish.

 

Why didn't DNR see this coming?

During the first seven months of the monitoring period (December 2014 – June 2015) walleye harvest rates were at or below predicted levels, based on tight regulations adopted for the open-water season. Based upon those results, total harvest was expected to be below the state's 28,600-pound limit for this 12-month period and the DNR's June 30 creel study showed the state was within 15,300 pounds of reaching the annual quota.

 

Why was the quota so low this year?

Since 2008, not enough young walleye are surviving to maturity and replenishing the Lake Mille Lacs population. As a result, Mille Lacs walleye numbers are currently at a 30-year low. In response, the state instituted more restrictive walleye regulations this year in order to protect young walleyes so they could grow older. In fact, this year Lake Mille Lacs' 2015 walleye safe harvest level was deliberately reduced from 60,000 to 40,000 pounds so that more fish could potentially survive and spawn to improve the walleye population. Under this year's quota, state anglers can harvest up to 28,600 pounds of walleye, and the eight Chippewa bands with 1837 Treaty harvest rights can harvest up to 11,400 pounds of walleye. Anglers are able to keep one walleye that is 19- to 21-inches long, or longer than 28 inches.

 

Is there hope for the fishery to recover?

Despite this year's low walleye population, DNR fishery surveys have shown this year that there may be good news on the horizon. Biologists are seeing a large population of young walleyes hatched in 2013. Walleyes in that group are currently 10- to 13- inches long. The survival of these fish suggests that the population will improve if more of these walleye and walleye hatched in later years survive their first year and beyond so they eventually can spawn. Population assessments this fall will provide additional information about the lake's walleye population.

 

Mille Lacs is not the same lake it used to be. Unprecedented changes are causing unexpected impacts. Learn more about how the lake is changing by clicking each item in the list below.

Clearer Water

More Predators

Aquatic Invaders

Food Competition&

Fewer Tullibee

Water clarity

Water clarity has nearly doubled since the mid-1980s. Improvement began about 25 years after the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s. Zebra mussels were first discovered in Mille Lacs in 2005. They did not exist in great numbers until 2011, which corresponds with a sharp upward trend in water clarity during the past three years. Improved water clarity has been linked to movement of young of the year walleye off-shore at smaller sizes and also may have benefited sight-feeding fish that prey on walleye and perch.

Bedrock

Underwater photo of Mille Lacs Lake bedrock after zebra mussels.
Underwater photo of Mille Lacs Lake bedrock before zebra mussels.

Boulders

Underwater photo of Mille Lacs Lake boulders after zebra mussels.
Underwater photo of Mille Lacs Lake boulders before zebra mussels.

Click each photo above to see underwater photos taken before and after zebra mussels infested Mille Lacs Lake. Note the difference in water clarity.

A northern pike

A northern pike

Increased predation

Northern pike and smallmouth bass populations have risen significantly since the early 1990s. In 2013, the northern pike population increased to the highest level ever observed. The 2013 smallmouth bass population was the second-highest ever recorded. Smallmouth bass populations have been on the increase throughout Minnesota and Canada.


Invasive impacts

Once devoid of aquatic invasive species, Mille Lacs now contains zebra mussels, spiny water fleas, and Eurasian watermilfoil. While it's unknown exactly what implications these infestations are having, it's suspected the increase in milfoil is providing more ambush cover for northern pike. Also, water-filtering mussels are contributing to water clarity that allow more aquatic vegetation to grow at deeper depths and in more dense stands.


Underwater photo of native Mille Lacs Lake mussel after zebra mussels.
Underwater photo of native Mille Lacs Lake mussel before zebra mussels.

Before zebra mussels infested Mille Lacs Lake, caddisfly, snails and other native organisms co-existed with native mussels (left). Now, zebra mussels attach themselves to native mussels, displacing those symbiotic organisms. Native mussels, now with restricted feeding openings and competing with zebra mussels for the same microscopic food, eventually starve to death (right).

The aquatic food chain

The aquatic food chain

More competition for zooplankton

First detected in 2009, spiny water flea numbers have fluctuated but show no signs of declining. Spiny water fleas may be having a negative impact on the native zooplankton community by directly competing with small fish for food and altering the historic aquatic food chain.

Tulibee, also called cisco, have been a preferred food source for Mille Lacs Lake walleye.

A tullibee or cisco

Changes in key forage species

The most prominent change is a decline in tullibee, likely the result of warmer water temperatures. A decline in tullibee is likely negatively affecting walleye in Mille Lacs, especially larger walleye, as walleye grow significantly faster when they are able to feed on this species because it is higher in calories than other prey species, including yellow perch.

 

Click a question to view or hide the answer

What is happening at Lake Mille Lacs?

The aquatic system is undergoing significant change, including a declining walleye population. The vast majority of walleye that hatch do not survive to their second autumn in the lake. The DNR has initiated unprecedented actions in response to this unprecedented change. The agency wants to increase the walleye population as quickly as possible with minimal impact to the local community.

Why is this happening?

While state and tribal fisheries management has played a role in the decline, the persistent problem of promising walleye year classes that disappear year after year is also linked to system change. Changes include increased water clarity that benefits sight-feeding fish; the introduction of zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and spiny water fleas; significantly higher populations of smallmouth bass and northern pike that may prey on walleye; a changing zooplankton community that may be altering the aquatic food chain; and declines in certain forage species, including tullibee.

What is the DNR doing?

As part of a multi-pronged approach, the DNR will convene a blue-ribbon panel of national fisheries experts to review past and current management practices. These experts reviewed the DNR's work and offered recommendations. The agency will also contract nationally recognized fisheries expertise to do an intensive review the state's fish tagging and fish population estimates. These reviews, plus new and more intensive field studies, are part of a systematic approach to improve walleye fishing.

What will this mean to anglers?

The agency will continue to implement regulations that protect young walleye. The lake has not produced a strong year class since 2008. That year class and upcoming year classes need to be protected to ensure there is adequate spawning stock in the future. Currently, there is adequate spawning stock, more than enough egg production and abundant fry production.

Anything else planned?

Details still are being finalized but DNR will explore new and innovative ways to engage citizen input on future management decisions; consider any feasible methods to manage aquatic invasive species; continue discussion and cooperation with tribal natural resource managers; and support a new Mille Lacs tourism marketing initiative with Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Hooked On Mille Lacs

A regularly issued newsletter from the Aitkin Area Fisheries Office that focuses on Mille Lacs Lake.