Lake Mille Lacs, MN — Three years ago, the DNR announced keeping a single walleye while fishing on Lake Mille Lacs was illegal.
It’s an effort to help save a population that state experts say has been in free-fall.
But if you talk to some business owners there, they say their economy is what’s really in free-fall, thanks to those regulations.
They and many anglers blame the state and some tribes for wrecking their hobby, and in some cases, their livelihoods.
It’s led to a contentious battle with no end in sight.
“They’re nuts. They’re nuts,” said Linda Eno.
“They have brought an economy to its knees.”
Eno and her husband have run Twin Pines Resort on the west end of Mille Lacs for 25 years.
“It was such a monumental day to say that now you are only allowing catch and release on the most phenomenal productive walleye fisheries in the United States and the jewell of Minnesota,” said Eno.
She says when those unprecedented regulations were put in place, business was cut in half, along with peace of mind.
“The emotional toll. The stress on my husband and I. I look at those DNR guys and I say you’re robbing my grandkids and kids of years of their fathers lives,” said Eno.
Up the road in downtown Garrison, an explanation of what’s going on.
“In 1995 the water became more clear and we’ve had invasive species come in, the worst of which is zebra mussels,” said Mille Lacs Fisheries Supervisor Tom Heinrich.
Heinrich says zebra mussels might well be the biggest problem of all.
The little mussels are filter feeders, meaning they feed on some of the lake’s smallest organisms that bait fish typically eat.
Those bait fish are what walleye feed on.
Less food for walleye means less walleye.
And here’s the proof.
In 2002, the DNR says there were about 1.1 million walleye in Mille Lacs.
By 2014, the population estimate plunged to about 250,000.
“The walleye population can only support so much harvest,” said Heinrich.
And other people on the lake are feeling the pain.
Nathan Horsch helps people find walleye, as a fishing guide for Nitti’s Hunters Point Resort.
19 years on the job, he says he’s noticed changes in the lake, and people’s attitudes toward the lake.
“You know this is Friday and there’s not too many boats around. There was a lot more boats when you could keep fish back then,” said Horsch.
On his 4 hour Friday night tour, 15 walleye were caught, and every single one went back in the water.
“A lot of people don’t agree with what the DNR is doing. The band has got its own DNR also now,” said Horsch.
And the band is the other part of this story.
In the early 90’s, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe sued to reaffirm rights to fish and gather on the lake, and nearby areas.
The case went to the United States Supreme Court, where justices ruled in favor of the tribe.
So today, about half of the allowed walleye harvest goes to tribal members.
“It is a shared fishery and you’ve got a walleye population in decline because of a whole bunch of issues,” said Fond du Lac Fisheries Program Manager Brian Borkholder.
Borkholder says the combination of fewer fish and now two different groups wanting those fish is reason for every angler to start managing their expectations of the lake.
“The angler that’s been down there for 30 years is looking at a smaller pie and he still wants a big piece of that pie, and that’s not possible anymore,” said Borkholder.