Winter anglers on Mille Lacs Lake can enjoy a walleye harvest opportunity for the seventh season in a row. Starting on Thursday, Dec. 1, anglers will be allowed to keep one walleye between 21-23 inches or one walleye longer than 28 inches on Mille Lacs.
“Our assessment netting shows that the walleye population is abundant enough to sustain some harvest again this winter,” said Brad Parsons, fisheries section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We know offering harvest opportunities when possible is important for anglers.”
Winter regulations are set after completion of the DNR’s annual fall netting assessment of the lake. The 2022 assessment found higher numbers of walleye than in the 2021 assessment, with walleye caught in similar numbers to what were found in the 2017-2020 assessments.
State-licensed anglers share the harvest of multiple species on Mille Lacs with eight Ojibwe tribes that have fishing rights under the 1837 treaty. The safe harvest levels for the fishing year will be set in early 2023 through discussions between the state and the tribes. The DNR will determine regulations for the 2023 open water season once the state’s allocations, calculated based on those safe harvest levels, are known, with an announcement of regulations in the spring.
Insights from fall assessment
The 2022 assessment showed improvement from the 2021 netting. Fisheries staff observed an abundance of walleye similar to numbers seen in recent years. The
2013-year class continues to be the most abundant, followed by fish hatched in 2017. The 2017-year class fish are now 18-21 inches long, with faster growing individuals exceeding 21 inches.
Fish that hatched in 2020-2022 were also sampled in higher numbers. It is encouraging to see additional year classes that may eventually contribute to the fishery, but the ultimate impact to the walleye population won’t be known for several years, Parsons said.
“Although there is no guarantee these fish will survive to adulthood in high numbers, we are cautiously optimistic that these year classes could contribute to the fishery in future years,” Parsons said.
The fall assessment also looks at food abundance and walleye health. Perch and cisco are the primary food source for Mille Lacs’ walleye. Perch abundance has increased because of strong 2020–2021-year classes.
Walleye condition, or “plumpness,” improved significantly for fish greater than 14 inches, reflecting the increased availability of forage fish. The higher abundance of food in the lake also has likely affected anglers’ catch rates, which were lower in 2022 than in recent years.
“A lower catch rate in the late summer and fall can sometimes carry over into the winter if forage is abundant, but predators can also reduce forage later in the winter and the bite may improve,” Parsons said.