MINNEAPOLIS -- A night fishing ban imposed this spring and summer to help conserve the troubled walleye population on one of Minnesota's most popular lakes will be lifted July 21.
The ban has contributed to historically slow fishing on Mille Lacs this year, which has long been popular because it offered high-quality fishing less than a two-hour drive from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
So few people have fished Mille Lacs that the 42,900-pound harvest quota imposed this year on sport anglers isn't likely to be reached, said Dave Schad, Minnesota Department of Natural deputy commissioner. "We've done some (computer) modeling, and it looks like the risk of reaching the quota is very, very low," he said.
Imposed since just after the May walleye and northern pike opener because of concerns about the walleye population, the ban has been in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., during which no boats could be on Mille Lacs with fishing equipment.
In addition to the night restriction, a tight limit on the size of walleyes that may be kept is in force, and the DNR has said an abundance of natural food is keeping the walleye harvest to a minimum.
The night ban -- which also affected muskie anglers and bowfishermen, among others -- was needed, the DNR said, so the walleye harvest quota wouldn't be exceeded.
But the lake's restriction -- known as a slot limit -- of two walleyes of 18 to 20 inches (one of more than 28 inches is allowed) has kept anglers away, resort owners have said. And those who have fished Mille Lacs have found walleye action slow because of what the DNR says are plentiful forage fish.
As a result, the June walleye harvest was a record low for Mille Lacs, as was the amount of fishing pressure recorded on the lake.
Typically, night fishing for Mille Lacs walleyes is more productive than daytime fishing. A fishing culture unique to the lake has developed over the years, during which boatloads of anglers converge to bobber-fish for walleyes over submerged rock piles. At least some of those anglers are likely to return to the lake when the night ban is lifted.
"Visitors to the lake will definitely appreciate the ban being lifted," said Tina Chapman of Chapman's Mille Lacs Resort and Guide Service. "And I don't think the lake's walleyes will be hurt by it."
Mille Lacs commercial fishing launches, which cater to groups of anglers, also have suffered this summer. Typically, anglers on the launches have the best luck on trips that last until about midnight.
But this summer, because of the night ban, the big boats had to head to port by about 9:30 p.m. -- just when Mille Lacs walleyes typically begin to bite. Nor could anglers travel as often to midlake "flats," as they historically have, and still be docked by 10 p.m.
"We had a launch out Saturday night with 25 people on it," said George Nitti of Nitti's Hunters Point Resort. "They caught 10 fish, one of which they could keep."
Launch owners also have complained that many of their clients come from the Twin Cities area after work and couldn't reach Mille Lacs this summer in time to make the boats' earlier departure times.
Other businesses in the area also have suffered this summer, because so few anglers have fished the lake. Nitti's Resort has eight cabins and two motel rooms, and each is vacant this week, Nitti said.
He and other locals blame springtime walleye netting by eight Chippewa bands, an opportunity granted by a Supreme Court ruling on treaty rights, for the lessened walleye population.
"The big problem is that the DNR has pretty much driven everyone away from this lake," Nitti said. "They stock Upper Red Lake and Leech Lake, yet they let the tribes and the anglers take from Mille Lacs, without putting anything back."
DNR fisheries managers say they are unsure why the Mille Lacs walleye population is at or near a record low. Besides the Chippewa netting, the DNR said, a combination of the lake's zebra mussel infestation, along with other aquatic invasive species such as spiny water fleas, together with historically high populations of northern pike and smallmouth bass, among other factors, might play a role.
The total walleye "safe harvest" for the lake this year is only 60,000 pounds, a fraction of what it was only a few years ago. Of that amount, the Chippewa were given rights to 17,100 pounds -- a quota the bands didn't reach this spring, either, because of the lake's late ice-out.
OTHER FISH LIMITS BOOSTED
In an attempt to draw anglers to Mille Lacs, while perhaps also denting the lake's northern pike and smallmouth bass numbers, the DNR this year boosted the lake's northern pike limit to 10, with one of more than 30 inches allowed. Similarly, the smallmouth limit was amended to six daily, one of which could be longer than 18 inches.
Yet neither change has driven significant numbers of new anglers to Mille Lacs.
Meanwhile, muskie anglers are pleased the night ban is being lifted. "There's been a lot of frustration about it," said Josh Stevenson, owner of Blue Ribbon Bait in Oakdale and a muskie guide. "With the night ban gone, it means we can freely fish the major and minor moon phases again, and can get out on the lake at 4:30 in the morning if we want to."
Schad said the night ban will lift at 10 p.m. July 21.
"This is happening in a hurry," he said. "We hope to get the word out to anglers as soon as we can."
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