Mille Lacs Messenger Updates
Recently, The Mille Lacs Messenger has published a two-part series on “co-management” walleye regulations’ impact on the Mille Lacs economy.
They show how this “wonderful” thing called co-management has cost so many people so much. In a recent “State of the Tribe” report, it was noted casino profits were down. Duh. Fewer people in the area means fewer people stopping for food and gambling.
The whole business community in the region and going north are suffering. Home and cabin owners who are there to enjoy the lake and a few shore lunches suffer. Then, when they decide to sell, they find out that because of “co-management” their property isn’t worth much, and there aren’t many buyers.
The Mille Lacs Tribe, which has vowed to get the long dis-established reservation back “one way or another,” then buys these homes and businesses at a reduced rate. Why? Because there are no walleye? Nope, because of made-up-numbers of hooking mortality, which by the way, no other lake in Minnesota is charged with.
The Minnesota DNR also loses. They have lost so much credibility that it can’t be measured. It’s politics vs biology that dictates lake usage!
Douglas Meyenburg, President, PERM
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.
By T.A. LeBrun Mille Lacs Messenger September 20, 2019
Editor’s note: Last week, the Messenger addressed what many resorts and guide services are feeling after the DNR shut down the lake for walleye fishing on Sept. 6 because of reaching angler quota. This week’s edition will look at why people want to come to Mille Lacs Lake, what the DNR has to say in response, and what locals would like to see from the DNR moving forward.
Why do you fish Mille Lacs Lake?
A conversation starter was posted recently on social media asking, “Serious question–why do you fish Mille Lacs Lake?” with almost 200 people piping in. The respondents said they fished for the trophy walleye and that “it’s the best lake in the country.” Others came to Mille Lacs for the “diversity in catching lots of fish … perch, bass, northern, and walleye.” Others say they just love the lake and have made family memories here.
It’s clear from the comments that there is something very magical about Mille Lacs. But the reality is, and there’s no getting around it, the lake is known primarily for its walleye, with the evolution of the industry headed toward bass and other species.
But moving forward, the DNR has tough decisions to make that will affect those who come up here for the walleye fishing.
What does the DNR say?
The DNR Aug. 26 press release announcing the walleye fishing closure on Sept. 6 said that because of angling pressure and high walleye catch rates, the closure was necessary to stay within the estimated limits and that high hooking mortality occurred in July and August when water temperatures were warm.
Proceeding with caution is something Brad Parsons, DNR fisheries section chief, says is important to ensure continued recovery of the lake’s walleye population.
When asked about specific concerns from resort owners/guides, Parsons says, “The closure takes into account the number of walleye in the lake and the recruitment of fish coming up behind the adult walleye. It has been our conservative regulations that we’ve had over the last several years that has made the population what it is right now.”
He adds that they will now see what the 2013 class (of walleye born in that year) does. The restrictions were meant to protect that class, which is very strong and the only one we have had for several years. He says that both the 2016 and 2017-year classes are showing some promise, but until their study is completed this fall, they won’t know what the future holds for fishing walleye on Mille Lacs.
“There has been a lack of survival in age 2 or 3 or under, but good numbers of fish at age 0 or 1, and then they don’t make it,” Parsons says. “Understanding mortality of walleye is tricky business.”
Parsons empathizes with the local economy and adds that the fishing is really good now, the highest they’ve seen since 2014, he said. “Our goal is to provide as much opportunity as possible,” he adds.
Fall assessments will be conducted in September, says Parsons, and some are underway now. “We will look closely at that data and see where it takes us. But people went to the lake this year, and there were more of them. This is a positive step, and we’re trying to provide as much as possible.”
In response to hooking mortality concerns, Parsons says, “I understand that perspective, but it’s a big lake and when you look at the pounds of fish spread over many, many days, it’s the best available science we have right now.”
Find more information from the DNR on Mille Lacs Lake, see mndnr.gov/millelacslake.
What resort owners/guides would like to see of the DNR moving forward
The State of Minnesota and Ojibwe tribal authorities with fishing rights on Mille Lacs Lake agreed on a 2019 safe harvest level of 87,800 pounds for state anglers and 62,200 pounds for tribal fishing.
As officials head into a new agreement, resort owners and fishing guides are asking for greater consideration when it comes to their livelihood and the Mille Lacs economy, as well as saying they are not seeing the dead walleye that the DNR’s hooking mortality rate (the estimated number of dead walleye from catch and release) would have produced.
Kevin McQuoid says he would like the DNR to have consistent regulation where people can look ahead and know when fishing will be open or if fish can be kept. “Something consistent throughout the year … especially as people travel around the country fishing different lakes, it’s always a challenge trying to keep up with what’s going on with the lake,” says McQuoid.
Though Tina Chapman says they have had a good summer and it is nowhere close to being as down as it was five or six years ago, she believes the co-management system, between the DNR and the Band, isn’t working and needs to have a good, hard examination. “We don’t know what the regulations are, so it’s hard for marketing. It’s hard to sell your business when you don’t know until the last minute. Most people are fairly good about it and are willing to accept what happens, but it still makes it hard to draw in customers,” says Chapman.
“You’re trying to put a not exact science into an exact formula, and we live and die by that. That’s the bad thing about the co-management: it’s an inexact science, and they’re using it as an exact science,” adds Chapman.
“It’s frustrating because it’s changing and you don’t know what to tell people. I feel like I’m being punished to keep one fish in the particular slot. If we didn’t have that, we would have had another 14,000 pounds and could have kept us open. Why couldn’t they have extended it two more days into the weekend?” questions Tim Potoczny.
Patrick Burch adds, “Stop managing on a quota system. This system at best is an inaccurate guess on how many fish they think die of mortality. It’s just not very accurate.”
“The lake is super healthy now and has been; it never was as bad as the DNR stated,” says fishing guide Tim Ajax. “The hooking mortality penalty is ridiculous. Our co-managed DNR claims that anglers killed 30 tons of walleyes this summer based on some creel data variables they have come up with to help enable this current walleye shutdown. There has been very little walleye fishing pressure since 2013. I and others don’t see the 60,000 pounds of dead fish in the course of a few weeks this past summer, let alone an entire open season. No one else saw the giant fish kill either. In the last five years, there are 50-plus days a year I fish. I may see one or two boats all day on the entire lake, and I know who they are. It’s really sad that our Mille Lacs community has to keep going through this.
Going forward, Ajax feels that the DNR co-management needs to be more transparent and open with everyone about how this lake is managed. “The DNR lake meetings with our local input group are basically scripted before it even begins, in my opinion,” he says. “Our voice is never really heard up here. Let all the anglers of Minnesota and residents on or around Mille Lacs Lake understand the facts why this newest and hurtful walleye closure happened again. Everyone has the right to know the truth when one or more governments are managing our livelihoods and fishing rights behind closed doors.”
Currently, he says, Mille Lacs Lake is plumb full of healthy walleyes of all year classes. “The best-case scenario is all anglers share the same fishing rights within the same season across the board,” Ajax adds.
Come to Mille Lacs
Tina Chapman said that they’ve seen some improvement from last year and hope it continues. “We’re looking forward to next year as being just as good if not better. People should just come up and fish. There are lots of opportunities, and if they’re not as much into fishing, there are so many other things to do,” she says.
Kevin McQuoid adds that one nice thing about Mille Lacs Lake is that it is prime Muskie fishing, which has started now and will only get better for big muskies up until November. “Guys looking for a fish of a lifetime, this is the time of year for that,” he says. “There is still great smallmouth action this fall and big northerns. There is a great chance of a state record in the lake for a Muskie. It’s a lake that has a number of different game fish and trophy fish. The lake is multifaceted with so many other things to do up here.”