Walleye anglers boycott Mille Lacs

By Dick Sternberg

Despite the fact that the Mille Lacs walleye action has picked up in recent weeks, the fishermen are staying away — in droves. As of mid-August, Mille Lacs anglers had fished a total of 1.97 million man-hours (including ice fishing), compared to last year's total of 3.17 million. With fishing pressure in recent weeks slowing even more, it now appears unlikely that the 2003 total will exceed 2.20 million man-hours. This compares to the 10-year pre-treaty average of 3.91 million man-hours.

"I never dreamed things could get this bad," said Terry Thurmer, proprietor of Terry's Boat Harbor on St. Albans Bay. "My launch business is down more than 90 percent and there have been some weekend days when nobody launched a boat." Thurmer and many others believe that fishermen are staying away because of an overly tight slot limit that prevents them from keeping any fish. "We've had poor fishing years before," Thurmer noted, "but people still went fishing because they could keep most of what they caught."

Before the 2003 fishing season, Mille Lacs anglers were encouraged when the DNR increased the safe harvest level from 400,000 to 550,000 pounds of walleye, exactly the level that PERM had advocated. The harvest slot was expanded from 14 to 16 inches in 2002 to 17 and under in 2003. But as I pointed out in my evaluation of the new plan last spring, "the number of 11- to 17-inch walleyes, which will be targeted during the 2003 season, is 48 percent below the long-term average as compared to 33 percent below in 2001." With this great a shortage of smaller fish, combined with the glut of young perch, it was inevitable that anglers would have trouble catching keepers.

Creel census results for the 2003 season show just how tough it was to catch a fish for the frying pan. As of August 15, Mille Lacs anglers had kept only 31,010 pounds of walleye and 26,749 pounds were lost to hooking mortality for a total kill of 57,759 pounds (this includes the 2002-2003 ice-fishing kill). It now looks like the total walleye kill will not exceed 70,000 pounds, out of a total of about 470,000 that was available after deduction for tribal harvest. To put this in perspective, a 70,000-pound kill would be only about one-third of the next lowest yearly total since creel records have been kept (the kill was 188,666 pounds in 1985). On average, an angler had to fish 93 hours (about 23 trips) to catch one keeper.

A 70,000-pound kill would mean an underage of about 400,000 pounds that will carry over to the remaining four years of the plan (100,000 pounds per year). Here's an example of how that underage would be applied. Assuming the safe harvest level remains at 550,000 pounds for the 2004 season, and the tribal harvest is 100,000 pounds, 450,000 pounds of walleye would be available to anglers. But there is a deduction of 7,600 pounds for the 2002 overage, so only 442,400 pounds are actually available. Let's say the 2004 angler kill is 462,400 pounds. In this case, the 2004 overage of 20,000 pounds would be offset by the 100,000-pound underage. The remaining 80,000 pounds of the underage would not be available for harvest in the remaining three years of the plan and is, in effect, lost.

Technically, the large underage does not add to the safe harvest level, but it provides a significant "cushion" should anglers exceed their harvest quota in one or more of the next three years. So if the safe harvest level remains relatively high, the DNR should be able to liberalize the size limit to allow anglers to keep more fish.

Earlier this summer, DNR fisheries leaders informed PERM representatives that they would not consider changing the slot for two or three years. They pointed out that members of the Mille Lacs input group want stability and that stability was necessary in order to evaluate the present regulations. But Mille Lacs anglers have registered their opinion on the regulations by staying away, creating a major economic hardship for the Mille Lacs business community. PERM believes the DNR should reconsider their stability policy and revise the regulations for the 2004 season to allow anglers to keep more of the fish they catch.

PERM representatives and several members of the Mille Lacs business community have requested a meeting with Governor Pawlenty to discuss their economic problems and try to come up with a solution that will bring the anglers back to Minnesota's greatest fishing lake. Stay tuned.