Progress comes slow on Mille Lacs.
Positive changes in store for 2004

By Dick Sternberg

While there are times when it may seem like things will never change, we have made considerable progress in achieving reasonable fishing regulations on Mille Lacs. Just a couple of years ago, we were stuck with a safe harvest level that averaged under 400,000 pounds, far below the historic average of 575,000 pounds, and we were looking at a 2-inch harvest slot. We worked hard to convince the DNR that the safe harvest level should be much higher, and their own studies are now confirming what we were saying. They bumped the SHL up to 550,000 pounds for the 2003 season, and it will be 480,000 for 2004.

The problem is, a higher SHL doesn’t mean a thing if there are only a few fish in the legal size range. That was the big problem in 2003: Even though the slot was expanded, it was set to focus on a size range that had already been hammered. The result was, it took an average of 93 hours to catch a keeper. No wonder fishing pressure was the lowest in 20 years!

Despite several meetings with the DNR during the 2003 season, they refused to budge on making an in-season change to widen the slot. Consequently, anglers took home a record low 35,000 pounds, by far the lowest catch on record.

Now comes the part that amazes me the most: In spite of the disastrous 2003 season, DNR fisheries officials continued to advocate continuation of their 5-year plan that would retain the 17- to 28-inch protected slot for the next four years. That’s when we decided to publish, “It’s Time for a Change.” Using the DNR’s own date, the paper clearly showed that the DNR’s strategy of hammering the small fish had created a walleye population that is heavily skewed toward the big fish. Not only are there few small fish to catch, the big fish have decimated both the 2000 and 2001 year classes, so there are few young fish coming up.

The new regulations for the 2004 season are certainly the most angler-friendly we’ve seen for a long time (20- to 28-inch protected slot with one of a four fish bag limit over 28 inches), but there is still a problem: While it makes more keepers available, it does not protect the smaller fish which have already been beaten up so badly. Hopefully, the strong 2002 year-class, which should grow to near-catchable size this year, can withstand the pent-up demand of fish-starved anglers. If you have to look twice at that little fish to decide if it goes in the live well, do the right thing — let it swim away.

Bottom line: Without the efforts of PERM, we would be looking at a much different picture on Mille Lacs. The safe harvest level would probably still be in the 400,000-pound range, meaning that regulations would necessarily be much tighter. I wonder how many anglers we’d see on Mille Lacs this summer if the DNR had gotten their way and retained the same regulation as last year? Yes — progress comes slow, but by any measure, it’s progress!