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.
DNR has begun implementing concrete steps aimed at improving the Mille Lacs Lake walleye population, while building a closer working relationship with the Mille Lacs community.
"Mille Lacs is an incredibly important fishery for Minnesota," said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. "We are redoubling our efforts to ensure its long-term health."
Anglers may keep one walleye between 18 and 20 inches or one longer than 28 inches when ice fishing begins on Mille Lacs Lake this winter. The winter walleye regulation goes into effect on Tuesday, Dec. 1, and extends through Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016.
DNR also will reduce the limit of northern pike on Mille Lacs from 10 to five, with one fish longer than 30 inches allowed. Anglers may only keep a northern longer than 30 inches if they have caught two pike shorter than 30 inches and have both in immediate possession. The pike regulation goes into effect on Dec. 1 and continues through Sunday, March 27, 2016. Its intent is to provide anglers with additional opportunity to catch and keep fish on Mille Lacs.
Both DNR decisions reflect the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee's desire for conservative regulations that will keep winter fishing open all season.
Seventeen Minnesotans on a newly formed Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee will provide input to the DNR on fisheries management programs and related issues for Mille Lacs Lake.
Members of the committee will contribute to the broader understanding of biological, social and economic aspects of the Mille Lacs fishery and develop recommendations to advise the DNR on potential approaches and regulations to solve identified issues.
"Group members will represent diverse perspectives and interests and provide us with valuable understanding and advice about Mille Lacs Lake," Landwehr said. "We are pleased at the pool of applicants and believe the people on this committee will give solid and meaningful input."
Mark Utne, Isle; Cheryl Larson, Wahkon; Tony Roach, Willow River; Tom Neustrom, Grand Rapids; Steven Besser, Litchfield; and Peter Perovich, Ramsey.
Tina Chapman, Chapman?s Mille Lacs Resort & Guide Service, local liaison to Explore Minnesota Tourism, Isle; Eddy Lyback, Lyback?s Ice Fishing and Lyback?s Marine, Wahkon; Steve Kulifaj, The Red Door Resort, Aitkin; Steven Johnson, Johnson?s Portside, East Township; William Eno, Twin Pines Resort and launch service, Garrison; and Dean Hanson, Agate Bay Resort and launch service, Isle
Mille Lacs County Commissioner David Oslin, Aitkin County Commissioner Laurie Westerlund, and Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering.
Jamie Edwards, Mille Lacs Band.
Dr. Paul Venturelli, Fisheries Program, University of Minnesota.
New project leader and additional staff: The DNR will create a new fisheries office to focus exclusively on Mille Lacs; assign a new Mille Lacs project leader; add a new outreach specialist; and provide more staff support for monitoring and technical analysis on the lake. These staff will provide more capacity for monitoring, foster better communication with local stakeholders, help with hatchery and stocking efforts, and assist the community with outreach and marketing efforts.
New fisheries facility: The DNR will work with the Legislature to secure funding for a new fisheries management facility that will include a cool-water hatchery.
The facility will be built in the Mille Lacs community and will provide room for monitoring equipment and staff. The space will accommodate educational, visitor and interpretive functions as well as serving as a location for public information meetings.
Bond funds will be requested during the 2016 legislative session for facility construction. Until a new facility is available, the DNR will lease an office in a community near the lake to house the project leader and other Mille Lacs Lake staff.
Pilot stocking effort: DNR will stock walleye fry in Mille Lacs in 2016 in a pilot effort to develop and refine techniques. While stocking is not necessary today with the abundant natural spawning, the DNR wants to be ready to go if and when such stocking becomes necessary.
The pilot will help develop techniques to maintain the unique genetics of the lake, ensure that aquatic invasive species in Mille Lacs are not spread to other waterbodies, and identify appropriate stocking levels. The DNR staff will chemically mark walleye fry to study their survival throughout their lifecycle. Egg-take, hatching, and stocking would occur in spring of 2016.
Cormorant control: The DNR is already in discussions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure control permits for double-crested cormorants.
Increased transparency of quota setting: The DNR will increase the transparency of the quota-setting process by inviting two advisory committee members to attend and observe fisheries technical committee meetings.
Promote other fishing and outdoor recreation: The DNR will promote the other great fishing in the lake, including northern pike, smallmouth bass and muskellunge, and the many recreational resources in the region. The DNR offers a wide variety of options for outdoor recreation in the Mille Lacs area including other lakes, hunting lands, state parks, bike trails, ATV and snowmobile trails, and paddling opportunities. In an ongoing partnership with Explore Minnesota Tourism, the DNR is collaborating on the Do the Lake outreach campaign.
The aquatic system is undergoing significant change, including a declining walleye population. The vast majority of walleye that hatch do not survive to their third 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.
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 also is 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 northern pike that prey on walleye; a changing zooplankton community that may be altering the aquatic food chain; and declines in certain forage species, including tullibee.
As part of a multi-pronged systematic approach to improve the walleye population, DNR convened a blue-ribbon panel of national fisheries experts to review past and current management practices. These experts reviewed and confirmed the DNR's work and offered recommendations. The agency now is in the process of creating a new fisheries office to focus exclusively on Mille Lacs, assigning a new Mille Lacs project leader and providing more staff support for monitoring and technical analysis.
The agency will continue to implement regulations that protect young walleye. The2013 year class is the first strong year class the lake has produced since 2008. The 2013 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.
DNR is exploring new and innovative ways to engage citizen input on future management decisions; considering any feasible methods to manage aquatic invasive species; continuing discussion and cooperation with tribal natural resource managers; and supporting a Mille Lacs tourism marketing initiative with Explore Minnesota Tourism.
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 2006. They did not exist in great numbers until 2011. Improved water clarity has been linked to young-of-the-year walleye moving offshore at smaller sizes and may also benefit sight-feeding fish that prey on walleye and perch.
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. Populations of black bass (smallmouth and largemouth) have been on the increase throughout Minnesota and Canada.
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. Water clarity also allows more aquatic vegetation, some of it invasive, to grow at deeper depths and in more dense stands.
First detected in 2009, spiny water flea numbers have fluctuated but show no signs of declining. Spiny water fleas have a negative impact on the native zooplankton community by directly competing with small fish for food and altering the historic aquatic food chain.
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. Walleye grow significantly faster when they are able to feed on tullibee because it is higher in calories than other prey species, including yellow perch. In recent years, however, production of juvenile tullibee has been strong.
The future of Mille Lacs Lake walleye fishing will depend on what the lake's new equilibrium is – an aspect of the lake that clearly is changing and a subject about which there is still much for fisheries biologists to discover. In the short term, DNR will set fishing regulations conservatively based on the need to protect the current population of spawning walleye and fish that hatched in 2013.
After the fisheries walleye population recovers, the state and the bands will implement a new harvest policy that:
- Spreads walleye harvest over a broader size range
- Considers size, age and sex composition when establishing harvest levels
- Relates safe harvest levels to changing lake productivity
Mille Lacs Lake remains a world-class fishery for northern pike, smallmouth bass and muskellunge. Partly to provide angling harvest opportunities and partly to manage northern pike predation on young walleye, DNR will continue to implement liberal fishing regulations that have minimal impacts on the lake's population of northern pike and smallmouth bass.
Survival, not reproduction, is the problem with Mille Lacs' walleye population. While harvest of walleye – either by netting or sport fishing – can remove spawning stock, neither has contributed to the present walleye decline. Reproduction remains strong in Mille Lacs but survival of young fish has not. DNR's population sampling work proves this, and a blue-ribbon panel of national and international fisheries experts confirmed the results.
Both lakes suffered a collapse in the walleye population. The Red Lake collapse occurred in the 1990s due to overharvest and illegal fishing, reducing the amount of walleye that could spawn each spring. In Mille Lacs Lake, an adequate number of spawning fish continue to produce strong hatches but not enough young walleye are surviving to maturity. Because of this lack of survival, implementing regulations that protect young fish so more can mature to spawning age is a crucial aspect of managing to prevent a similar collapse of Mille Lacs' spawning population.
Mille Lacs Lake is famous for walleye fishing. Since about 2000, walleye have been in decline. In early 2014, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources asked a five-member panel of national and international fisheries experts to determine why and recommend future actions. The panel operated independently from DNR and issued a detailed report in January 2015.
The panel looked back before 1999, when walleye numbers were higher in the lake, and compared then to now. What did they look at? Data from then and now describe the lake's walleye populations, predators, competitors and prey, as well as other factors like water quality, invasive species and the tiny organisms that live in the lake.
When the decline in walleye began around 2000, Mille Lacs Lake was changing. These changes affected virtually everything that lives in the lake. Fishing regulations and management also were changing but these changes affected a comparatively small portion of what lives in the lake.
- Since 2000, other fish – including other walleye and possibly cormorants – are eating young walleye in numbers that contribute to the overall decline.
- Significantly fewer walleye that are one year old aren't surviving through their second and third summers.
- Overfishing, including tribal netting, has not led to a decline in the number of walleye that are old enough to reproduce in the lake.
- Female walleye are naturally producing enough eggs because there has been no declining trend in the number of walleye that hatch each year.
A fall assessment occurs every September on each of Minnesota's large lakes, which are defined as the 10 largest lakes with naturally reproducing walleye populations. Data collected during each lake's assessment is used to help make statistically accurate fish population estimates and determine fishing regulations. Minnesota's large lakes are Cass, Kabetogama, Lake of the Woods, Leech, Mille Lacs, Pepin, Rainy, Red, Vermilion and Winnibigoshish.
As shown on the map below, sampling during the annual fall assessment on Mille Lacs is done using a variety of methods, in multiple places and at multiple times. These different methods and multiple samples provide more comprehensive data that allows more accurate population estimates to be calculated.
Move your mouse over the map's legend to see sampling sites
Move your mouse over the map's legend to see sampling sites
An assessment is designed to look at a lake's entire population of fish. Fish of all sizes and many species &endash; even those that commonly serve as food for larger fish – are caught using multiple methods, counted, weighed, studied and tested.
Analyzing data collected shows population trends and relative sizes of fish within those populations. Stomach contents of netted fish can reveal their prevailing or preferred diet. Scales and otoliths (a fish's inner ear) show age. The physical condition of fish can provide information on fish health and disease.
A number of water samples, some of which are collected in the fall, are analyzed as part of an annual assessment. Analysis conducted on water samples include temperature and oxygen profiles; alkalinity, dissolved solids, phosphorus and chlorophyll; water transparency; and zooplankton.
Edible fish are made available to approved charitable organizations, which utilize those fish for food. Fish that are not edible are used to create compost that helps fertilize trees grown in DNR nurseries.
A regularly issued newsletter from the Aitkin Area Fisheries Office that focuses on Mille Lacs Lake.