‘Dark day’ for Mille Lacs walleye stirs anger

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, August 4, 2015

ISLE  — On the wind-swept shores of Lake Mille Lacs, the abrupt end to this year’s walleye fishing season sunk in Monday with a mix of nervousness, resentment and resolve.

Mille Lacs, one of Minnesota’s “Big Six” sport-fishing lakes, is synonymous with the walleye, the official state fish that draws fishermen from far and wide and breathes millions into the local economy. Now, with its population plummeting, the Department of Natural Resources ordered an unprecedented moratorium on walleye fishing effective at 10 p.m.

For Dereke Voge, the closure is a test of how much his two-boat fishing guide business depends on walleye. He was taking a tour out for “one last hurrah” Monday night. He said his sales have been sliced in half over the last three years as the DNR has imposed stricter walleye harvest quotas. Daily trips out on the lake are a thing of the past.

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“It’s gotten down to where we’re only going out a couple times during the week. The weekends aren’t multiple trips like it used to be,” he said. “We’ve pretty well seen it coming. It’s still hard to handle.”

Resort owners are bracing for cancelations once word gets out that walleye are off-limits — even though the lake is still a prime place for small-mouth bass, northern pike and muskie.

“We’ll weather it,” Nelle Phillips, a manager at Hunter Winfield’s Resort, said on the 132,000-acre lake’s southern end. “It’s going to have an impact for sure.”

It’s such a big deal that Gov. Mark Dayton is weighing a special session for a Mille Lacs bailout.

“It’s a dark day for Minnesota fishing and certainly the people of Mille Lacs,” Dayton said in St. Paul on Monday, announcing he would travel to the lake Saturday to fish for bass and other species thriving in Mille Lacs in hopes of promoting continued tourism.

Dayton spoke by phone with top legislators about scheduling an emergency session for later this month though no immediate decisions were made. It could include approving low-interest loans, tax abatements, potential grants and other assistance to resort owners, bait shops and charter operators affected by the walleye halt.

The DNR ordered the ban after its census showed anglers and Indian tribes with fishing rights had already exceeded the 40,000-pound quota, which was already lower than previous years. Commissioner Tom Landwehr said younger fish are having trouble growing and surviving because of natural predators in the water and hovering above it, warmer water temperatures changing the ecosystem and other pressures. He said there are signs the walleye is poised for a comeback, but tighter restrictions are needed to facilitate it.

“Hopefully the lake is beginning recovery,” Landwehr said, adding that there were no immediate plans to begin a walleye stocking program or push off the start of next spring’s season opening.