- Associated Press - Friday, July 7, 2017

ISLE, Minn. (AP) - Protesters who oppose how the state manages the struggling walleye population on Mille Lacs Lake plan to take to the water this weekend, when Gov. Mark Dayton goes bass fishing there.

Walleye fishing - even catch and release - became prohibited on the big lake for the next three weeks effective Thursday night. The Department of Natural Resources is trying to protect the lake’s walleyes from hooking mortality, the problem of fish dying after they’re released, which gets worse in warm weather. Catch-and-release only walleye fishing reopens Friday, July 28. This is the second year anglers have been banned from harvesting walleye from the lake.

Dayton will set out from Fisher’s Resort near Isle around 9 a.m. Saturday to promote Mille Lacs’ outstanding smallmouth bass fishing opportunities as an alternative. It’ll be the second time he’s gone bass fishing there this season. Mille Lacs was recently named the No. 1 lake for bass fishing in the nation by Bassmaster.

Critics who claim politics rather than biology guides how the DNR manages the lake’s walleyes are organizing a boat rally offshore from Fisher’s Resort.

The organizers - including Linda Eno, co-owner of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison and Doug Meyenburg, president of Proper Economic Resource Management - say they want to send Dayton a peaceful message about how small businesses around the lake are struggling to survive. They’re telling participants to be respectful of other anglers; wear red, white and blue; and wave American flags.

The restrictions have been hard for some anglers and business owners to swallow because the walleye bite has been hot this year.

“The fishing’s been absolutely phenomenal,” said guide Tony Roach, who serves as co-chair of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, which advises the DNR. “It’s amazing to see a bounce back, or I don’t know however you put it. But the fishing just is out of this world right now.”

The fast action makes many skeptical of the DNR’s population estimates. The DNR says the walleye population has fallen sharply primarily because too few young walleyes are surviving until their third year, due to a complex and changing set of environmental circumstances.

“They maintain there’s 50 percent less fish in the lake than there was five to 10 years ago, and we’re seeing people going out and get 50, 60, 70 walleyes on a fishing trip,” said Dean Hanson, owner of Agate Bay Resort and another co-chair of the committee. “We just can’t rationalize that.”

A shortage of forage may be one reason the walleyes are biting, said Brad Parsons, the DNR’s central region fisheries manager. And fewer people are fishing the lake. That makes hungry walleyes more likely to strike at the smaller number of anglers’ minnows, leeches and lures.

Later this year, outside experts will review the DNR’s science and management of Mille Lacs. Chris Vandergoot, a fisheries research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Lake Erie station, will lead the research.

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