Let's Do What's Best for the Fish

By Dick Sternberg

The recent ice-fishing season on Mille Lacs appears to have been the worst in modern history. Although the final numbers have not yet been tallied, the preliminary estimate of the winter walleye harvest is 10,000 pounds, which would be the lowest since accurate creel records have been kept. To make matters even worse, the winter catch of yellow perch may have been a record low, as well. This futile fishing kept most ice anglers away, resulting in a disastrous year for the Mille Lacs winter fishing industry.

The dismal walleye fishing resulted from the shortage of walleyes of harvestable size, combined with the glut of young-of-the-year perch. By most accounts, perch fishing was not worth the trouble, which would be expected with the population of adult perch at a 14-year low. With a bite this poor, anglers stayed away in droves.

This pathetic winter walleye fishing was in stark contrast to the suicidal bite that occurred during the open-water season, and the word soon spread among anglers. With few perch to fill in the slow times, fishermen went elsewhere. After the walleye season closed on February 16, the normal late-season perch fishery did not develop and one resorter described the big lake as a "ghost town."

Ironically, this boom-bust scenario is a direct result of the DNR's tight regulations, which the agency has repeatedly said are intended to prevent the boom-bust fishing occasionally seen in years past. But the DNR did not anticipate what the results of their overly protective regulations would be. The unprecedented build-up of large walleyes decimated the populations of adult perch, tullibees and practically every other kind of baitfish, resulting in the tremendous walleye bite seen during the 2002 season. With the population of adult perch at a low level in the spring of 2002, many were surprised to see such a large perch hatch. The best explanation is that a much-higher-than-normal percentage of the young perch survived, because the small predators that would normally eat them as soon as they hatched had themselves been eaten by the hungry walleyes. The result: Mille Lacs Lake is now experiencing what is probably the biggest boom-bust cycle in modern history—exactly the opposite of what the DNR intended when they imposed non-biological treaty-management regulations.

What is most bothersome about this story is that DNR fisheries biologists seems unconcerned about the current population imbalance, even though their fall gill-netting results in 2002 clearly showed an even greater population imbalance than in 2001. There are now more large walleyes, fewer "slot" walleyes, fewer adult perch and fewer adult tullibees. Many anglers have expressed deep concern over the increased skewing of the walleye population and are concerned that fishing will deteriorate once the big walleyes die off and there are fewer-than-normal smaller walleyes to replace them.

Unfortunately, the DNR's new 5-year plan, while more angler-friendly than what anglers have endured the past two years, does nothing to address the population imbalance. PERM representatives have asked the DNR to consider regulations that would help relieve the imbalance, but DNR fisheries officials said that they would not consider any deviation from the plan for at least 3 years.

As recommended in previous PERM reports, the DNR has raised the safe harvest level from 400,000 pounds of walleye in 2002 to 550,000 pounds in 2003. In light of the much higher SHL and assuming the early season bite is slower than normal (as the DNR anticipates), PERM believes that the DNR could safely relax the 17- to 28-inch protected slot after the first month of the open-water season. The lower the early season harvest, the more the slot could be relaxed.

Over the years, walleye harvest during the first month of the season has varied from 35% to 75% of the annual total, with an average of approximately 50%. This heavy early season harvest results from the fact that fishing pressure is very high during the first month of the season, and the walleyes (in most years) are easy to catch. The bite may hold up for another week or two, but then slows down considerably in mid-summer.

It is up to the DNR to take all conditions into account and then determine exactly what a more liberal slot would be, but it makes good sense to start whittling down the number of large walleyes. For example, allowing an angler to harvest one walleye over 22 inches (rather than 28 inches) after the night ban ends would not only help relieve the current predator-prey imbalance, it would also reduce the focus on the smaller walleyes that are needed to become the brood stock of the future. In addition, this strategy would help maintain angler interest during a season in which fishing will likely be sub-par.

While many Mille Lacs fishing interests have expressed a desire for more stability in fishing regulations, stability is not a good idea until the lake's predator-prey balance and population structure has been restored.

PERM hopes that the DNR will take these suggestions seriously and adjust its management strategy according to what is best for the fish population, not what is best politically.