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Fishing enthusiasts continue to seethe with anger at the state as it seeks new solutions to a tricky problem.
Minnesota authorities have extended until Aug. 11 a ban on walleye fishing at popular Lake Mille Lacs in the northern reaches of the state. The extension means the ban will have been in effect for five weeks during the heart of the summer tourist season, even though Mille Lacs anglers have been restricted to catching and releasing walleye for the last two years and even though, by all accounts, the walleye are everywhere in the lake right now and are biting hot.
Local tourist businesses have lodged protests with authorities and, earlier this month, frustration on the part of baffled anglers boiled over on the lake, when protesters in some 25 boats surrounded Gov. Mark Dayton on the water. The governor was fishing for bass in an attempt to demonstrate that the state’s crown jewel lake is teeming with fish other than walleye to catch. The angry fisherman didn’t care for the message. They called the restrictions “tyranny.”
The problem facing the Mille Lacs walleye and the need for the restrictions on fishing them has been difficult for local and state authorities to message.
Indeed, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced it was extending the ban last week after news came that, despite current restrictions, Mille Lacs fisherman had already exceeded their annual walleye harvest quota of 44,800 pounds. How is that possible?
According to authorities, the problem is “hooking mortality,” where a fish appears to swim away happily after being caught and released only to die later from its wound.
In a statement announcing the extension of the fishing ban, regulators also sought to address public confusion concerning the state of Mille Lacs’ famous walleye stock.
The apparent boom-time walleye fishing conditions reported by anglers this year is in fact a sign of trouble to come, according to the MDNR. Larger walleye are biting “hot” because the stock of smaller fish they feed on has grown thin. But the fish that are biting are often midsize walleyes coming into their peak spawning years.
In other words, the walleyes that matter most to future walleye fishing are hungry, which isn’t good, and fishing those larger walleye will result in significant depletions of walleye in years to come.
The MDNR also reported that it is seeking new solutions to the walleye problem at Mille Lacs and that it has commissioned an “external review team of scientists” to “take a fresh look” at the issue.
The review is being led by Dr. Chris Vandergoot of the U.S. Geological Survey. His team’s report is expected in time to guide fisheries management next year.
PREVIOUSLY on Route Fifty: “25 Boats Full of Angry Walleye Protesters Surround Minnesota Governor During Lake Outing”
John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.