Strong catch, warm weather push Mille Lacs walleye fishery toward state quota
Other fishing on Mille Lacs unaffected, remains strong and near record highs
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced last week’s creel survey on estimated walleye harvests, releases, and kill on Mille Lacs Lake during the first two weeks of July showed drastic increases that could result in the state reaching its limit by July 29.
Despite the ongoing challenges with the walleye population, other fishing on the lake remains strong and near record highs. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr stressed that anglers should take advantage of the continuation of liberal northern pike and smallmouth bass regulations on the lake.
“Mille Lacs Lake remains one of the premiere fishing destinations in the state,” Landwehr said. “Northern pike and smallmouth bass are at or near record highs. Anglers should take advantage of the liberal regulations for these species. DNR tagging studies also indicate that muskies larger than 50 inches have never been more abundant.”
During the first seven months of the monitoring period (December 2014 – June 2015) walleye harvest rates were at or below predicted levels, based on tight regulations adopted for the open-water season. Based upon those results, total harvest was expected to be below the State’s 28,600-pound limit for this twelve-month period and the DNR’s June 30 creel study showed the state was within 15,300 pounds of reaching the annual quota.
However, as of July 15, when the last angler survey was conducted, the state was within just 3,000 pounds of reaching the annual quota. Records also show it was only the second time in 30 years that Mille Lacs walleye catch rates in July were higher than the second half of June. This dramatic spike is believed to be due to unusual circumstances – including the high catch rates over the 4th of July and warm water temperatures (the third highest on record). Warm water greatly increases walleye mortality on fish that had to be released because they did not fall within the harvest slot. The so-called “hooking mortality” of walleyes that die after being released counts toward the state quota.
Gov. Mark Dayton has directed the DNR to wait until after the next creel survey which will cover the period from July 16 to July 31, to see if the most recent numbers are an aberration. During that time, officials at the DNR, the Office of Tourism, and Department of Employment and Economic Development will meet with resort owners and other affected stakeholders on Mille Lacs to discuss the situation and seek recommendations.
A federal court decision legally requires state officials to abide by the limit agreed upon with the eight Chippewa bands for each year. After the next creel report is received, the commissioner will take the necessary actions. It should be emphasized, however, that if the state determines it has exceeded its harvest allotment, the commissioner will be legally required to suspend fishing for walleye on the lake.
The DNR has met with the Minnesota tribes who harvest on Mille Lacs, as well as the executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission on the situation and shared fisheries data with them. There is mutual concern to respond to the increased harvest and take steps necessary to protect the walleye population.
Earlier this year, the DNR also met with Mille Lacs Lake business owners and anglers to discuss the struggling walleye population and the risks of going over the lower quota. The DNR, Department of Employment and Economic Development, and Explore Minnesota Tourism will continue working with area resorts and businesses to gather their input, assess the impact of fishing conditions on area businesses, and work with the community as a decision is made on the continuation of the fishing season.
Additional Background on the Mille Lacs Lake Walleye Quota
Since 2008, not enough young walleye are surviving to maturity and replenishing the Mille Lacs Lake population. As a result, Mille Lacs walleye numbers are currently at a 30-year low. In response, the state instituted more restrictive walleye regulations this year in order to protect young walleyes so they could grow older.
In fact, this year Mille Lacs’ 2015 walleye safe harvest level was deliberately reduced from 60,000 to 40,000 pounds so that more fish could potentially survive and spawn to improve the walleye population. Under this year’s quota, state anglers can harvest up to 28,600 pounds of walleye, and the eight Chippewa bands with 1837 Treaty harvest rights can harvest up to 11,400 pounds of walleye. Anglers are able to keep one walleye that is 19- to 21-inches long, or longer than 28 inches.
Despite this year’s low walleye population, DNR fishery surveys have shown this year that there may be good news on the horizon. Biologists are seeing a large population of young walleyes hatched in 2013. Walleyes in that group are currently 10-to 13-inches long. It is important to protect those fish so they can contribute to future angling success and walleye production.
Information on Mille Lacs management can be found at www.mndnr.gov/millelacslake. This year’s fishing regulations are on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/fishmn.
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Breeding mallard numbers down, other species up from last year
Minnesota’s breeding mallard population counts are down from last year while other species saw increases, according to the results of the annual Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spring waterfowl surveys.
This year’s mallard breeding population was estimated at 206,000, which is 20 percent below last year’s estimate of 257,000 breeding mallards, 17 percent below the recent 10-year average and 10 percent above the long-term average measured since 1968.
The blue-winged teal population is 169,000 this year, 66 percent above the 2014 estimate of 102,000, but the population remains 21 percent below the long-term average of 212,000 blue-winged teal.
The combined populations of other ducks, such as ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads was 149,000, which is 29 percent higher than last year and 16 percent below the long-term average.
The estimate of total duck abundance (excluding scaup) was 524,000, similar to last year’s estimate of 474,000 ducks.
The estimated number of wetlands was 220,000, down 36 percent from last year, and 13 percent below the long-term average. Wetland numbers can vary greatly based on annual precipitation.
“We generally expect to see lower duck numbers during dry years. We did see lower mallard numbers this year, but blue-winged teal and other duck numbers were improved from last year,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. “In addition to our counts, the continental waterfowl population estimates will be released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer and they provide an indicator of what hunters can expect this fall.”
The same waterfowl survey has been conducted each year since 1968 to provide an annual index of breeding duck abundance. The survey covers 40 percent of the state that includes much of the best remaining duck breeding habitat in Minnesota.
A DNR waterfowl biologist and pilot count all waterfowl and wetlands along established survey routes by flying low-level aerial surveys from a fixed-wing plane. The survey is timed to begin in early May to coincide with peak nesting activity of mallards. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides ground crews who also count waterfowl along some of the same survey routes. These data are then used to correct for birds not seen by the aerial crew.
This year’s Canada goose population was estimated at 250,000 geese, which was similar to last year’s estimate of 244,000 geese. This doesn’t include an additional estimated 17,500 breeding Canada geese in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
“The number of Canada geese in Minnesota remains high but the population has been very stable for many years. With the early spring this year, we should see a good hatch of goslings as well,” Cordts said.
The number of breeding Canada geese in the state is estimated via a helicopter survey of nesting Canada geese in April. The survey, which includes most of the state except for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, counts Canada geese on randomly selected plots located in prairie, transition and forested areas.
The DNR will announce this fall’s waterfowl hunting regulations later this summer. The Minnesota waterfowl report is at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
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DNR approves new deer population goals
New deer population goals have been approved by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for large portions of northeastern, north-central and east-central Minnesota, covering 40 of 128 deer permit areas in the state.
“These new goals will result in management to increase deer numbers in relation to last year’s levels in most of the 40 permit areas,” said Steve Merchant, wildlife populations manager. “The new goals largely reflect the desires shared by stakeholders who participated in the deer goal setting process and generally reflect the public feedback we’ve heard during the past few years.”
As a result of this process, 85 percent of the 40 areas will be managed for populations higher than those experienced in 2014; the remaining will see no change.
Comparison to former goals
Of the 40 deer permit areas with new goals, 26 will be managed for deer densities higher than those established by the previous goals; eight will be managed at similar densities to former goals; and six will be managed for densities below former goals. More information about the goals for each deer permit area can be found at www.mndnr.gov/deer.
With respect to the four advisory team recommendations not accepted by the DNR, the agency chose more moderate population increases to better reflect the preferences suggested by hunter and landowner survey data and public input; allow more deer to be harvested; and minimize anticipated deer damage to agricultural lands and forest habitat.
Goals are intended to be in place for three to five years. The DNR shortened the goal timeframe to allow more frequent opportunities to revisit and adjust goals with input from stakeholders.
This is the third year the DNR has worked with citizens and stakeholders to re-assess and re-establish deer population goals in portions of the state. Goals for southwestern and portions of northern Minnesota were set in 2012. Goals for southeastern Minnesota were set last year.
DNR will postpone goal setting in the remaining 54 deer permit areas scheduled for consideration in 2016 until the current legislative audit of Minnesota’s deer population management program is complete.
More information about deer goal setting can be found at www.mndnr.gov/deer.
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DNR studies muskie to improve fishing for anglers
Researchers carefully hoist a huge muskellunge onto a boat. They record its measurements, identify the sex of the fish, scan an electronic tag implanted in the muskie and return it to the lake where, one day, it could take an angler’s lure and provide a long-remembered thrill.
Collecting information and studying muskie populations allows the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to make well-informed decisions about how to stock muskie and manage harvest.
“As anglers head into the muskie season that began June 6, they are enjoying opportunities that came about largely due to research-based management,” said Don Pereira, fisheries section chief. “Better information can lead to better fishing in a state that’s already a renowned muskie fishing destination.”
The DNR studies muskie in a variety of ways, including looking into everything from muskie ancestry using DNA analysis to how well muskie grow and survive once they’re stocked in certain southern Minnesota lakes. The research builds on past work that identified how to best capture and rear a large-growing native strain of muskie, stock this strain into appropriate waters, and manage the harvest.
“This large-growing strain is one reason muskie anglers are able to catch fish in the 50-plus inch trophy range,” Pereira said. “There are enough of these fish in the population that many anglers asked for the change to a 54-inch minimum length on muskie in most waters of the state, which is in effect this year.”
Along with a growing interest in muskie fishing, research taking place around the state aims to fine-tune muskie management.
Walker area fisheries: Using DNA to study muskie ancestry
With the help of DNA analysis, researchers can trace the ancestry of individual fish, including muskie. The work has real-world management implications.
“It’s a pretty cool concept. We’re starting to do more of it now on special projects around the state,” said Doug Schultz, Walker area fisheries supervisor.
For one study, Walker area fisheries teamed up with Loren Miller, a fisheries research geneticist, as well as anglers who were shown how to collect muskie scale samples for DNA analysis.
The study’s central question: In Baby and Man lakes in the Walker area, stocking of the less desirable Shoepack Lake strain of muskie ended in the 1970s. Now, what is the residual effect of Shoepack strain muskie on the current muskie population in these two lakes?
“Strain” in fish is similar to heritage in humans: Fish from a geographic location of origin tend to have similar physical characteristics that may differ from those of other locations. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, muskie from Shoepack Lake were reared and stocked in several Minnesota lakes, even in lakes where a native muskie population already existed.
It was later seen that the Shoepack strain grew slower and reached smaller maximum sizes than the Mississippi strain, which are native populations connected to the upper Mississippi River drainage system, including Leech Lake. The use of the Shoepack strain ended in favor of the faster growing and larger Leech Lake-Mississippi strain.
On Baby and Man lakes, the study found that Shoepack ancestry declined to only nine percent, down from 13 percent in 1995. Yet, historical Shoepack strain stockings are still having an impact on size potential of some fish in today’s muskie populations.
“This study could set the stage for future muskie management decisions on lakes with residual Shoepack ancestry,” Schultz said. “A study using DNA adds a new level of certainty about the effects of past stocking. That helps as we take multiple factors into account when making management decisions aimed at improving opportunities for anglers.”
Montrose area fisheries: Tagging and recapturing muskie after new stocking
Muskies were first stocked in 2011 in the Sauk River Chain of Lakes, giving anglers in the St. Cloud area a chance to fish for muskies close to home.
For Montrose area fisheries staff, the stocking offers a rare chance to track the growth of a new fish population using electronic tags.
“It’s a new fish to the system. We don’t really know what the growth potential is out there. It will be neat to find out,” said Joe Stewig, Montrose area fisheries supervisor. “Some of these fish will be marked, and we will then be able to track their growth throughout their lives.”
Beginning in 2013, Montrose area staff started implanting electronic tags into muskies, work paid for through hunting and fishing license dollars and with financial help from the Hugh C. Becker Foundation through the St. Cloud chapter of Muskies Inc. After fish are tagged, the goal is to recapture some of these fish during fall electrofishing, when crews look specifically for these stocked muskies.
“With continued funding, we’ll be able to use these tags to monitor the growth of this newly established muskie population,” Stewig said. “Using this method goes above and beyond the standard lake survey.”
West metro fisheries: Tagging muskie to evaluate stocking efforts
To study the effectiveness of muskie stocking in three Twin Cities metro area lakes, the DNR’s west metro fisheries staff is working on a muskie tagging project in partnership with the Muskies, Inc. Twin Cities Chapter and Hugh C. Becker Foundation.
The study taking place on Lake Minnetonka, Bald Eagle Lake and White Bear Lake measures the survival numbers of year-old muskie, called yearlings, and smaller muskie less than a year old, called fingerlings.
“All three lakes have high northern pike populations. So we normally don’t stock muskie in the face of that kind of competition,” said Daryl Ellison, west metro area fisheries manager. “But there’s an interest in it because they’re metro lakes.”
The study results will help evaluate the DNR’s standard stocking ratio of one yearling per three fingerlings – important knowledge because yearlings cost more to stock than fingerlings.
“Initial results seem to support the 3:1 ratio, but more study is needed,” Ellison said. “The study was showing some positive results for fingerlings in Lake Minnetonka.”
Windom area fisheries: Studying Fox Lake muskellunge
Fox Lake is Minnesota’s southernmost muskie lake, and was first stocked with muskie in 1999. Years later, electronic tags began informing an ongoing study on muskie in that lake.
Each spring from 2011 to 2013, Windom fisheries staff counted, measured and weighed muskie captured with nets. They also implanted muskie with electronic tags, and recorded information about the growth of individual fish already implanted with a tag from a previous spring.
Starting in 2012, muskie fingerlings have received electronic tags before they are stocked into the lake. To date, more than 1,200 muskellunge of varying sizes have been tagged in Fox Lake.
“Through this study on Fox Lake, we’ll gain pertinent information on population abundance, growth and longevity of muskie,” said Nate Hodgins, Windom area fisheries assistant supervisor. “It will give us a good picture of muskie populations in similar size and type lakes.”
Windom fisheries plans to use the data to help evaluate how Fox and perhaps other lakes are stocked in smaller, southern Minnesota lakes in the future. They will be netting muskie and updating Fox Lake population numbers every two years starting in 2015.
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