One of North America’s largest lakes, Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota, has been deemed catch-and-release only for 2017. Along with the new regulation, walleye fishing will be completely closed from July 7 to July 27.
The new restrictions come in response to an outstanding season of ice fishing on Mille Lacs, where officials estimate that 1/3 of the “total amount of walleye state anglers can harvest” were removed from the lake. It makes this the second year in a row, and only the second time in modern history, that the summer walleye season will be catch-and-release only.
The three-week closure limits anglers to only targeting species like pike, muskie and bass, and using artificial baits or sucker minnows longer than 8”. It will cover the majority of July, a time when fishing pressure and hooking mortality is high.
Hooking mortality is when a fish that is caught and released dies anyway. This is most prevalent in warmer months, when water temps topple 70 degrees and dissolved oxygen levels are lowest. Some estimates by the state of Minnesota say that 1% of fish released in winter succumb to hooking mortality, but nearly 20% of fish thrown back in summer do. Things are even bleaker when fish are caught on live bait, rather than artificials, as the odds of walleye swallowing the hook go up.
While the decision to go catch-and-release only is heavily contested, as well as the figures listed above, I feel like it’s the right call for the lake to make.
For one, Minnesota has the equity to get away with this. Unlike most states, Minnesota is littered with lakes teeming with trophy walleye. Even though Mill Lacs is over 200 square miles, it’s only the state’s fourth biggest lake. If this scenario took place in a different state, like Nebraska, where the top 10 biggest lakes combined have a smaller surface area than Mill Lacs, it would be a little different story. Minnesota, though, can shut down Mill Lacs and still have plenty of angling opportunities to go around.
Secondly, this is only going to help the fishery in the long run. Although ice fishing was hot this year, it needs to be put into perspective as to why. Mill Lacs walleye figures are at a 40-year low, but the lake continues to churn out successful days on the water because the baitfish population is also very low. The lake simply needs a break from fishing pressure, and a break from Mother Nature to ensure a successful year of spawning.
Who this hurts the most is local businesses. Guides that have been taxying anglers around for generations and resorts that have housed sportsmen for decades will definitely see a hit in business… for the second consecutive year. Long term, though, this band aid of limiting walleye fishing is in their best interest.