- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday he’ll insist that Mille Lacs Lake be open for an ice fishing season for walleye.

Dayton’s pledge for a winter season comes a month after the open-water season got suspended early. The prospect of another cancellation has caused anxiety in the tourism-dependent area.

“It’s crucial that there be a season and it be as generous in terms of limits and opportunities as possible,” Dayton said, speaking to reporters after an unrelated event at a St. Paul middle school. “I will insist there will be one.”

Dayton said he informed his Department of Natural Resources commissioner of his position during a private meeting Wednesday.

The DNR is about to undertake a new analysis of the lake’s walleye situation before deciding on an ice fishing season and restrictions that could be imposed. The most recent survey found the walleye population to be struggling and annual harvest limits already exceeded.

The DNR has said it won’t know until mid-October whether it would open Mille Lacs for winter walleye fishing. But internal emails obtained by The Associated Press through the state’s public records laws show the department felt immense pressure from the central Minnesota lake community to preserve ice fishing.

An internal planning document from mid-August says the DNR plans to “aggressively pursue” ice fishing options by coordinating with local American Indian tribes to outline the best options for ice fishing on Mille Lacs Lake.

“I think there is going to be growing pressure to begin to outline what an ice fishing season might look like on Mille Lacs,” commissioner Tom Landwehr wrote in an Aug. 7 email to staff.

When the DNR halted the walleye season in early August, owners of resorts and other fishing-related businesses on the central Minnesota lake feared a massive drop-off in visits to the lake. In many respects, the winter season is even more lucrative.

DNR data from recent years show that anglers spend considerably more hours on Mille Lacs during the winter months - 1.5 million hours from last December through March compared with 337,000 hours during the open-water season - as reflected in the communities of ice houses that populate the frozen lake. But the walleye harvest in winter is consistently far less in pounds than during the spring and summer months.

Statistics compiled by the University of Minnesota Extension Service show that nearly two-thirds of Mille Lacs visitors in winter are there to fish and the average daily spending is higher than in spring, summer and fall when the activities are more varied.

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