How Are Those Walleye Biting? On Minnesota Lake, They’re Not
New York Times, 8/12/2015
GARRISON, Minn. — Along the rocky shore of Mille Lacs Lake on a recent morning, flat-bottomed fishing boats were idle in their docks. No customers wandered into a bait shop selling night crawlers, minnows and jumbo leeches. The restaurant at Twin Pines Resort was hushed and nearly empty, despite the postcard-perfect views of the vast, sparkling lake it offers from the patio.
And it was no mystery why. That morning, it had become illegal to fish here for walleye, the most treasured fish in Minnesota, on Mille Lacs Lake, perhaps the most famous place in the state to fish for it. Only a few days into August, summer on the lake seemed to be over.
“This is a walleye lake,” said Diane Emery, manager of the Blue Goose, which offers guided fishing trips, last week. “There’s no walleye, there’s no fishermen.”
The state’s Department of Natural Resources issued the order on Aug. 2, saying that because the lake’s walleye population was dangerously low, and the 40,000-pound annual quota had been exceeded, there would be no more walleye fishing there for the rest of the season.
The decision prompted howls of protest from business owners and residents, who said the department had mismanaged the lake’s walleye population for years and had, in effect, threatened to devastate the local economy, which is dependent on anglers who rent charter boats, stay in nearby motels and eat at bars and restaurants.
“It’s a sad deal,” said Bill Lundeen, an owner of a bait shop near the lake. “I totally see businesses closing up because of this. We like to stay positive, and today’s a hard day to do that.”
As for the suggestion that anglers come to the lake — which, at 200 square miles is nearly twice the size of Queens — to fish for smallmouth bass or perch instead, Kathy, Mr. Lundeen’s wife, shook her head dismissively.
“Here’s what that would be like,” she said. “You’ve got tickets to the Rolling Stones, O.K.? And just before the concert, Mick Jagger quits.”
The morning after walleye fishing was called off, fishermen said they were packing their bags, while motels began racking up cancellations throughout August. At the Blue Goose, in the town of Garrison, which hugs the lake, once-popular guided trips to fish for walleye — $35 for a four-hour trip, bait and tackle included — were called off.
“I had two gentlemen come in this morning, buy a couple of sweatshirts, and then say, ‘We’ll be back again when the fish are back,’ ” said Denise Reid, a clerk at the Your Up North Trading Post, which sells gifts and souvenirs.
Barb Brezina, 49, one of the few people walking along the lake on a recent day, stopped next to a 26-foot fiberglass walleye statue where tourists routinely pose for pictures.
“Walleye is what this town is known for,” she said, adding that she and her husband had decided to fish in another lake nearby instead. “Everyone around here is going to suffer.”
Two hours’ drive to the south, in the Twin Cities, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has scrambled to placate people affected by the walleye fishing ban, even suggesting that the Legislature be convened for a special session to find a solution to the crisis in the Mille Lacs (pronounced mill-LACK) area, possibly through interest-free loans or tax abatements.
This is a “dark day for Minnesota fishing and certainly the people of Mille Lacs,” Mr. Dayton said at a news conference announcing the ban. He has said that he is considering a move to restock the lake with walleye, a plan that could begin next spring.
Fishing is at the heart of Minnesota culture, with more fishing licenses issued here per capita than in any other state. The Department of Natural Resources says there are 5,493 fishable lakes.
And it is hard to overstate the affection that Minnesotans have for walleye, a large, olive-and-gold-scaled fish with snow white flesh that is flaky and sweet. About 4.6 million pounds of walleye are harvested each year for sport. Good restaurants routinely command $30 for a walleye filet, sautéed and drizzled with lemon; at the Minnesota State Fair, it is served deep-fried on a wooden stick. (Most restaurants here buy walleye from commercial fisheries in Canada.)
There is little agreement on the reasons for the apparent drop-off in the walleye population, but experts at the state’s natural resources agency say that larger predators — especially large walleye — appear to be eating younger walleye in alarming numbers. This could be because of a shortage of other fish like perch or tullibee, species that large walleye typically like to eat, but that have struggled to survive as lakes in Minnesota have gradually warmed as a result of climate change, some fish biologists say.
“There were signals this spring that this was going to be a problem, but I don’t think anybody expected this to happen,” said Raymond M. Newman, a professor of fisheries at the University of Minnesota. “It is a fairly big deal in closing the season. And they could have, perhaps, put on more stringent regulation a year ago, but people resisted it. Now they’re in crisis mode.”
Business owners in the Mille Lacs Lake region say that without walleye fishing, they have little to draw visitors. In the towns around the lake, where large signs reading “Welcome Fishermen” are a common sight, some day trippers and families with children visit, but it is primarily serious fishermen who expect to catch a half-dozen walleye each day.
Kari Hough, an owner of a charter fishing service, said that he would focus on anglers who wanted to catch smallmouth bass or northern pike, though he had canceled his nightly trip to fish for walleye.
He said he believed much of the criticism from the state agency and from Indian tribes, which under normal circumstances are allowed to fish for walleye using nets, was unfounded.
“The D.N.R. is just doing their job,” he said. “I think they’re doing the best job they can do. You can’t count wildlife.”
Until the walleye population is corrected, some people have suggested that it is time for Mille Lacs Lake to rebrand itself. The Minnesota tourism office has proposed to spend $400,000 in the next two years, marketing the lake as a place that has more to offer than walleye fishing.
“We’ve got to find a way to make the lake family-friendly,” said Pat Root, whose restaurant, Farm Market Cafe, opened only five years ago. “It can’t just be for hard-core fishermen.”
Others said they were waiting for the Legislature and the governor to take quick action. “A loan would be good, but how am I going to pay it back?” said Randy Simons, an avid fisherman who rents pontoon boats to tourists in the town of Onamia. “There’s nobody catching fish because there’s nobody here.”