Mille Lacs Messenger Update
By T.A. LeBrun Mille Lacs Messenger September 13, 2019
Lake is healthy and locals question DNR policy
As owner of McQuoid’s Inn, Tim Potoczny discusses how the recent DNR walleye fishing closure on Sept. 6 has affected his resort and launch service, another customer calls in wanting to cancel their launch.
“We’re getting cancellations. We’ve been able to talk most of them out of it, but what stresses me out as an owner is … [the DNR needs to] make a plan and stick to it.”
Potoczny says. Potoczny’s frustrations are resonating around the lake as other resort owners and fishing guides are approached and respond. They want the public to know that the lake is not in peril. That the walleye closure is not for biological reasons and those most familiar with the lake know it’s teeming with walleye.
They also want the public to know that the fishing is amazing with trophy fish–Muskie, bass and pike–out in the waters of the Big Pond just waiting to be hooked. They want people to know there is more to the lake than walleye–kayaking, recreational boating, lodging with breathtaking views, great dining, camping, sandy swimming beaches, fall colors, golfing, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, and much more.
With the economy flourishing overall and helping them rebound, resort owners and guides wonder what could have been had regulations not been as stringent regarding walleye fishing.
What are resort owners and guides saying?
Editor’s note: It’s been no secret that the state of walleye fishing has hurt the Mille Lacs Lake economy in recent years. The Messenger surveyed Mille Lacs Lake resort owners and guide services with a large number of them responding. While we understand that other businesses have been affected as well, for the purpose of narrowing content, this story focuses on resorts and fishing guides.
This is what they had to say.
Island View Resort in Wahkon owner Tim Pater says, “Normally our boat and pontoon rentals are walleye fishermen, and I have had some cancellations on boats and pontoons. Reservations are not coming in quite as much as they had been in the past, and we will most certainly be down some, mostly with pontoon rentals and cabin rentals. We’re just hoping to have a good perch bite this fall and generate some interest in Mille Lacs again and fall fishing in light of the walleye being closed.”
Chuck Appeldoorn, owner of Appeldoorn’s Sunset Bay Resort and Fiddlestix RV & Resort in Isle, says the management of the lake has been devastating. “It’s the uncertainty and lack of knowing that makes operating a business next to impossible,” he says. “You try to stay positive and keep believing if you hang in there, next year will be the breakthrough and will eventually cover your losses. But as year after year passes, you have to wonder if it’s more political than anything else. Fishing guides and the locals tell you there have never been so many walleyes, yet ‘the professionals’ seem to claim the walleye are about to go extinct.”
Appeldoorn says they have had to change their business model from a fishing resort to a family fun destination and wedding resort in an effort to diversify to survive. “However, with a much smaller fraction of the Mille Lacs guests now choosing other destinations, business marketing and promotions efforts are beginning to seem for naught. We personally had to close a restaurant and a patio pub and change the direction of a local golf course,” he adds. “We do plan to keep fighting and believe in this area and are now focusing on other amenities and attractions to help promote the Mille Lacs in a positive light.”
Tina Chapman of Chapman’s Mille Lacs Resort in Isle says one of the biggest challenges is uncertainty. “Unhappiness lies in the fact that we know it’s not a biological decision, and I understand they (DNR) don’t want to break the agreement that they have,” she says. “It’s hard to know because you don’t know who’s not calling. I had one call wondering if they could fish and wanted to cancel. I talked them into staying and told them they could fish for bass.”
As a resort owner, she says she knows fishing is the main draw. “That’s why they come–for the fishing. I have lost quite a few customers who want to keep a fish but many who were happy with catch and release. We had a customer who has been coming here for 17 years, and they can’t even have a shore lunch. That’s a frustrating part,” she says.
Kevin McQuoid of Mac’s Twin Bay Resort says part of the negative impact has been the perception of more turmoil on the lake. The lake is not in turmoil, he adds, meaning–there are a lot of fish.
“We’ll all still have our doors open and make enough to keep the doors open but not enough to make a profit,” McQuoid says. “I don’t have any lodging, so it doesn’t hurt me as much. It’s more last minute people coming up fishing. We’ll miss out on the guide trips, and it will hurt the bar and restaurant.”
Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Portside in Isle (a convenience store, bait shop, liquor store and event grounds) and member of Mille Lacs Fishery Advisory Committee, says the perception of a closure would usually involve a decimated fish population. “In reality, this economy/lake was closed because of a flawed quota co-management system,” says Johnson. “We have a healthy fishery up here that is teeming with walleye and other sport species–smallmouth, Muskie and northern. There’s nothing that compares to this lake; we have big fish and lots of them. There are trophy sized fish in all the species.”
David Estrem, general manager of Hunters Winfield Resort in Isle, also expresses his displeasure with the politics of the lake. “The lake is not in trouble, and it (the closure) has nothing to do with biology,” he says. Estrem said he sent a letter to the Governor saying he and the DNR need to figure this out. “What hurts us is when you can’t specifically target them (walleye). People like to catch them even if they can’t keep them because the fish in this lake are bigger than most lakes. There aren’t many lakes that can produce what Mille Lacs does.” Overall, he says the policy has decreased their business by two-thirds, but that this year was better because anglers could keep a fish in the spring and still fish them over the summer.
Patrick Burch of Burch’s Guide Service, who mainly guides out of Terry’s Boat Harbor, concurs.
“Obviously, it has had a big impact,” says Burch. “Before the tight restrictions and closures, I would average around 75 guide trips per summer; that number plummeted down into the 15-20 trips per year range for those first few restrictive years.”
But Burch adds that for him as a fishing guide, things have gotten better and is thankful the walleye fishing was closed at the end of the summer rather than mid-summer as it had been in the past.
“The last two summers have been very good,” adds Burch. “This year, I was back up into the 75 guide trips for the summer range again. I attribute it to the fact that fishing is so good and people from the cities want to come up because they just love catching big fish and have a legit chance of catching a fish of their lifetime.”
Tim Ajax, of Lake Mille Lacs Guide Service, says, “The walleyes are fat, happy and plentiful all around the lake, but the recent DNR co-managed policy has once again scared away an enormous number of anglers for the next couple months or until ice out. My bookings for walleye trips have halted altogether. The entire Mille Lacs community will again feel the negative impacts of closure and constant changes in the strict regulations for walleye angling.”
He adds, “Resorts, restaurants, bait shops, stores, hotels, launches, deckhands, cooks, schools, farmers, guides, teachers, housekeepers, bartenders, property owners, and everyone else loses revenue. Basically, many people lose their jobs or get their hours reduced dramatically because of government. Also, keep in mind how many businesses around the lake have gone bankrupt or just could not keep the doors open anymore in the last five to seven years.”
On a positive note, Ajax is grateful his open water guiding business has been doing okay but not good, he says. He adds that business has been better “in years past before all the crazy no-walleye-in-the-lake gossip.” He attributes staying “somewhat busy” to being a multi-species guide and working well to maintain positive relationships with resorts and other guides around the lake. “If I focused on only walleye, I would not be guiding anymore,” he says. “Overall, walleye fishing has decreased for all business owners and has impacted so many people in a negative way the last several seasons.”
Next week, part two of this story will look at why people want to come to Mille Lacs Lake, what the DNR has to say in response, and what local resort and fishing guide services would like to see from the DNR moving forward.