- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 21, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Anglers will have to release any walleyes they catch in Mille Lacs Lake again this summer and they will be barred from even catching the fish for three weeks during the peak of the season, state wildlife officials said Tuesday.

The catch-and-release regulations for walleyes on Mille Lacs will be in effect when Minnesota’s fishing season opens May 13, the state Department of Natural Resources said. The 2017 walleye season on Mille Lacs is scheduled to run through Labor Day on Sept. 4.

Walleye fishing won’t be allowed in the popular eastern Minnesota lake from July 7 through July 27. Anglers can fish for all other species during that 21-day period, including bass, muskies and northerns, but only with artificial bait and lures. An exception will be made for anglers targeting northern pike and muskellunge, who can use live sucker minnows longer than 8 inches.

The restrictions are needed to help rebuild the lake’s struggling walleye population, DNR officials said. Catch-and-release regulations were imposed on the premier walleye lake for the first time last season.

In a statement, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the agency realizes catch-and-release “is a difficult option for anglers who enjoy a fish meal, but we are using everything in our management toolbox to ensure a healthy and plentiful walleye population for future fishing seasons.”

Officials said the decision to ban walleye fishing for three weeks was made after a successful winter season on Mille Lacs drove the walleye harvest higher than expected.

“Ice anglers fished more on Mille Lacs in 2017 and caught more and larger walleye than expected,” DNR fisheries section chief Don Pereira said in the news release. “As a result, ice fishing this winter accounted for about one-third of the total amount of walleye state anglers can harvest from Mille Lacs in 2017.”

Mille Lacs was once considered Minnesota’s premier walleye fishery, but the species has been on a long-term decline. Biologists say the main reason has been too few young surviving to maturity.

Closing the walleye season for 21 days is aimed at coinciding with the hottest part of the summer, when released fish are vulnerable to stress, Pereira said.

During the last two weeks of July 2016, hooking mortality - fish that die after being caught and released - accounted for more than half of the state’s walleye harvest allocation on Mille Lacs for the entire open water season, Pereira said.

“Warm water combined with July’s higher fishing pressure means that more fish die - even those that are caught and returned to the water,” he said.

The DNR said decisions on regulations were made after consulting with the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee. The state’s 2017 walleye allocation is 44,800 pounds. However, state and Ojibwe tribal leadership decided that the 2017 walleye season will remain open through 12:01 a.m. Sept. 5, provided the state harvest does not exceed a conservation cap of 55,800 pounds.

State and tribal leaders also agreed to an overage system. Under that system, the state and Ojibwe bands with treaty rights on Mille Lacs will be required to deduct any harvest above their allocation from a future year’s allocation.

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