While the Minnesota Walleye Council isn’t going to officially release the new walleye regulations for Mille Lacs until next week, I was lucky enough to arrange an interview with their spokesman, Carl Marques for a sneak peek. A little background on the Mille Lacs fishery. Minnesota has more anglers per capita than any other state. And while many of our anglers pursue bass, muskies, trout, or panfish, walleye fishing is what comes to mind for most when you mention fishing in the North Star State. You could name off any number of walleye destinations in Minnesota, lakes like Leech, Winni, or Gull to name a few come to mind. But none of the 10,000 lakes in our state can hold a candle to Mille Lacs when it comes to representing our iconic walleye fishing.
“Mille Lacs” is French for “1,000 lakes”. This is a pretty accurate description, since Mille Lacs sprawls over 132,000 acres–about the same size of 1,000 small lakes, and it has been estimated than when it was at its peak in the 80’s that the walleye population was as high as 1,200 per acre, which equated to a walleye population of over 15 MILLION WALLEYES! Fast forward to the 20-teens, and the population has dwindled to less than a tenth of that number. No one seems to know for sure who or what is to blame for the decline. Could it be over-fishing by sport anglers? Maybe spearing and netting by Native Americans? Global warming? Mismanagement by the DNR? Climate change? Aliens? Invasive species? Terrorists? I think it may be a combination of all the above. Whatever the situation, there are many thousands of Minnesotans that depend of the Mille Lacs walleye fishery for their income or lifestyle, sometimes both. And despite the fact that there are plenty of other species of fish to pursue in Mille Lacs–fish like perch, pike, muskies or bass, it is the ‘eyes that get all the attention.
And all eyes are on the DNR when it comes to an announcement of new regs for this lake. It wasn’t that long ago when the state’s six fish limit was an obtainable goal here. That six fish limit was changed to four, then two, then none. Anglers out for the abbreviated ice season this winter were allowed one fish that had to be between 18 and 20 inches. Guides, resort owners, and other local businesses are all feeling the impact of nobody out fishing the big lake. Spring will soon be here, and many of us are awaiting what the powers at be of the DNR have in store for this year. Carl and I met for coffee at The Zebra Mussel Diner in Isle last week, I was eager to get some insider information about the upcoming season. Or lack thereof. Carl and I go way back, and I knew I could count on him to bring me up to speed. I recorded our meeting, the conversation went like this:
ME: So Carl, a lot of folks, both anglers and business owners, are nervous about how the 2016 walleye season on Mille Lacs is going to be regulated. What can you tell me about new rules and regs for this year?
CARL: What makes you think I’m going to tell you anything? My phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from actual journalists. I’m talking about calls from people like Matt Straw, Terry Tuma, Tim Lesmeister, even Ron Schara. RON EFFING SCHARA is calling me, and you want the scoop? You’re buying you know.
ME: Hey, nice to see you too. Now you know there is no one better to get the word out than me. My blog is read by tens of anglers, some of them even claim to like it. I’m not looking for all the details, just give me the broad strokes, you know, the highlights. I’m hearing grumblings that there may not even be a walleye season…is that what you want me to tell everyone—that there will be no walleye season on Mille Lacs? Oh, and your phone is ringing off the hook? Who has their phone on a hook?
CARL: Calm down, there absolutely will be a season. [Then there was mumbling I couldn’t understand, sounded like he was questioning my background and education] We have come up with a new plan that is bound to increase participation, increase the walleye population, and increase income and sales for many Minnesota businesses. After long negotiations with several Minnesota companies, Mille Lacs anglers will be participating in the newest, most progressive concept in fisheries management ever thought of.
ME: Yeah, progressive…that’s what Minnesota walleye anglers are looking for. Why don’t you guys just stock more fish? That seems to be a popular default answer for many of the outspoken ladies and gentlemen I see on TV.
CARL: We are counting on Minnesota anglers being a little more open minded. But believe it or not, stocking more fish is part of the plan. Stocking fry or fingerling sized walleyes has never really shown any results. But we always knew that if only we could stock the lake with “keeper” sized walleyes, like they do with trout in the streams, there would be an immediate and drastic improvement of the walleye population. Growing walleyes to keeper size, around 14”, has always been cost prohibitive, so it’s never been done. Until now.
ME: Alright, this is starting to sound good. You will be stocking walleyes, keeper walleyes, and there will be a season. Will Mille Lacs be open for walleye fishing when the statewide fishing season starts in May?
CARL: Yes, you will be able to um, go out on Mille Lacs when the season opens May 14.
ME: That is great news. What will the bag limit and size limit be?
CARL: This is where things start to become a little more, uh, unusual…I guess you can say the limit will be five, with no size restrictions.
ME: Really, five? It’s been a bunch of years since you could keep five walleyes on Mille Lacs.
CARL: Well, I never said anything about keeping five walleyes…like I said everyone needs to keep an open mind. Getting this fishery to rebound will take some time, even with our new exciting plan. And if the anglers are taking walleyes out at a rate faster than they are putting them in, we will be worse off than before. The limit will be five, but you won’t be able to keep any.
ME: So it will be what—a catch and release season where you are only allowed to catch and release five?
CARL: Not quite. Our statistics show that catch and release fishing, while seemingly without impact, will be too harmful to the population. We tried to come up with a plan that would allow fishing with barbless hooks, and even though our chief consultant Phillip Washington made some convincing points as to how a barbless catch and release season would work, we ultimately decided that anglers would not be able to figure it out, so we came up with something that will be fun for the anglers and still have no impact on the fishery.
ME: So we can’t keep any fish, can’t even catch and release fish—what can we do?
CARL: Underwater cameras have become very popular, and we decided that it would be best if anglers only viewed the walleyes with a camera, thereby eliminating all contact with the fish. Of course, you would be free to make video recordings of the fish you see so you can enjoy them later, or even share the clips with friends on YouTube or Facebook. Just make sure that once you have viewed five walleyes, you quit. The limit for this season is five walleyes, any size, but they can only be seen, not caught. DNR enforcement will be checking the recordings on your SD cards, so make sure you don’t go over your limit.
ME: This started out sounding so good, but now that I’ve heard all the details, this sounds like a disaster. Won’t all those “keeper-size” walleyes you guys are stocking help out right away?
CARL: You missed one detail. I said keeper walleyes were going to be stocked, but not by us—it is just too cost prohibitive. It costs about $22 to grow a walleye to 14” and stock it in a lake, and we just don’t have the budget for it. The walleyes will be stocked by all of you—the Mille Lacs anglers. In fact it will be required that in order to fish on the Big Lake, you must bring one [or more] live walleye from a registered vendor, and release it into the lake before you launch your boat.
ME: [blank stare]
CARL: I’m sure you are wondering where the registered walleye vendors will be located—we have arranged for walleye vending machines to be installed at several popular bait shops surrounding the lake, and they all take credit cards.
ME: [blank stare]
CARL: The walleye vending machines work like this—swipe your card, select the number of walleyes you want to purchase, hold your five gallon bucket under the chute, and pull the lever—instant walleye in the bucket. Are you OK? You’re not having a stroke or something are you?
ME: Oh sorry, no, that just caught me by surprise, all these regs…I was thinking I would have good news for my readers, but now…well, I’m not sure what the average angler will think of this.
CARL: I said these new regs would be progressive. There have actually been similar plans used in Europe.
ME: [blank stare]
CARL: Quit doing that, it’s freaking me out. And a blank stare can’t be heard on your little recorder.
ME: Alright. So for review, there will be a season, but in that season we can’t keep any walleyes. And during that season, we can’t actually fish for walleyes, at least not with hook and line. But we can look at them on a camera, but we are only allowed to see five a day. And we have to bring a live walleye, one we paid for, and stock it into the lake before we can launch a boat. So the bag limit is actually negative one.
CARL: You got it. We think it is going to be popular. J.C. Munchall from Nanook Underwater Cameras has already predicted record sales of their Mille Lacs Special camera—it has built in recording and has software that will calculate the length of the walleye on camera. A software update scheduled for release this spring will also calculate the weight. We may as well embrace the digital age. Walleyes Unlimited have already scheduled a “Camera Only” tournament for June, and this event could get national coverage. Now even vegans can participate in fishing tournaments!
ME: I think these new regs will be met with…resistance. You know these fishermen will want to have some fish to bring home once in a while. Or do you expect all the anglers on the lake to also turn vegan?
CARL: We have thought of that, and we want everyone to be able to have a fish fry. Whenever an angler purchases a live walleye for stocking, he will get a coupon for 20 percent off of frozen tilapia fillets at any participating grocer. Did you know tilapia are farm raised? Eat all you want—they’ll make more!
ME: I’m starting to hate you. Let’s change topics…what about the muskie management of Mille Lacs, you have to admit this fishery is very popular, and continues to bring tourism to the area. It’s one of the only things still good about the lake.
CARL: We are absolutely going to continue with the muskie program, with a few changes. The muskies have done well in Mille Lacs, maybe too well. There have just gotten to be too many big muskies in the lake—did you hear about the guy that caught a fifty pounder on a fly rod? On a goddam effing fly rod! If there are so many big muskies in the lake that even fly fishermen can catch them, it is definitely time to scale back. We are going to revert back to stocking “Shoepack” strain muskies. They are native to Minnesota, but rarely get bigger than ten pounds. We feel it is a much safer choice for the lake than the giant Leech Lake strain currently in there.
ME: I’m glad you guys aren’t in charge of anywhere I regularly fish.
CARL: Oh, and where do you fish nowadays? ME: You know, the usual spots like the Miss…..uh I mean…uh, Devils Lake North Dakota, yeah that’s it. That’s where I fish now. Devils Lake. Now what about the smallmouth. You have to admit that Mille Lacs is truly a world class smallmouth fishery. I know lots of people, myself included, that have caught smallies six pounds or bigger here. The Bassmasters are even coming here this summer for a big tournament. Tell me you’re not going to mess with the smallmouth.
CARL: Yeah, we’re going go ahead and do away with all smallmouth regulations. Starting this year there will be no closed season, no size limit, and no bag limit. It turns out all the Iowans that come up here like to eat them, and they do spend a lot of money at the casinos. And they can’t tell the difference between a rock bass and a smallmouth, so rather than making things more confusing for them, we simplified it.
ME: We’re done here. Check please!