ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Fisheries managers said they hope to steer anglers on Mille Lacs Lake toward northern pike and smallmouth bass to protect the struggling walleye population, as they announced regulations Tuesday for the upcoming season.
The popular lake's biggest change is extending the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. nighttime fishing ban until Dec. 1 instead of lifting it in mid-June, said Don Pereira, fisheries chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He acknowledged it will be a blow to resorts on Mille Lacs that run nighttime launch services.
Except for the opening weekend, nighttime fishing won't be allowed during the open water season.
Daily and possession limits for walleyes remain unchanged at two fish, which still must be between 18 to 20 inches long, except for one longer than 28 inches.
But the northern pike limit will rise from three to 10, one of which may be longer than 20 inches, and the ban on spearfishing for northerns will be lifted.
The smallmouth bass season will start earlier on the lake, on the May 10 walleye and northern opener, while Mille Lacs will be exempt from a statewide catch-and-release smallmouth rule that takes effect in mid-September.
The northern season will now run through the last Sunday in March.
The limit remains six. But size restrictions will be relaxed. Under the old rules all smallmouths had to be between 17 and 20 inches, except for one longer than 20. There's no minimum size for 2014, but only one can be longer than 18 inches.
Pereira told reporters the new rules are meant to protect walleyes while providing "some relief for the local economy because walleye fishing and the walleye harvest will be low this year, and probably for a few years coming yet, because it's going to take us a while to reverse this trend."
Big launches with guides are popular with anglers who drive two hours north from the Twin Cities area to fish the big lake after work. Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison, said about 75 percent of her launch business had come from her 8 p.m.-midnight trip and now those anglers will have to leave work early for a 6 p.m. launch.
"It raises all kinds of havoc," Eno said.
But Eno said she expects the liberalized rules for pike and bass will help a little because they're fun-to-catch fighters.
Mille Lacs was considered one of Minnesota's sport fishing crown jewels but its walleyes are at a 40-year low. Researchers say reproduction is strong, but too few survive until their second autumn, perhaps because of northerns and smallmouths eating them. A shortage of forage fish is also thought to be a factor. Clearer water and invasive species including zebra mussels, spiny waterfleas and Eurasian watermilfoil may also be part of the equation. Some people blame netting and spearing by eight Chippewa bands with treaty rights on the lake.
The lake's total walleye quota has been slashed to 60,000 pounds this year. Sport anglers are allocated 49,200 pounds while the tribes can take 17,100 pounds.
Pereira said the night ban should reduce the walleye kill by about 20 to 25 percent and lower the chances of it becoming necessary to impose catch-and-release-only rules later this season. He acknowledged that Mille Lacs anglers won't get to keep many walleyes this season anyway since the lake holds relatively few between 18 and 20 inches.
But Tom Jones, the DNR's regional treaty coordinator, said there should be at least some within that slot. Females that hatched in 2008, the lake's last strong class of walleyes, are at around 19 inches now while some 2008 males have started reaching 18 inches, he said.
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