Catch-and-release season could be a good thing

The 33 possible regulations DNR biologists have considered for Mille Lacs walleye fishing in 2013 have this in common: They are recipes for disappointment.

Most anglers who come to Mille Lacs in hopes of keeping a walleye to eat will be unable to find one between 18 and 20 inches. Along the way, many will beat the crap out of the walleyes searching for the elusive keeper, and the predicted good bite will mean hooking mortality will account for the lion’s share of the 180,000 pound harvest.

Given the inevitable disappointment, the 2-inch slot will also be a recipe for more whining and moaning about gillnets, treaties, the Indians, etc., and visitors who don’t care about such things will go home with a bad taste in their mouth that has nothing to do with eating smallmouth bass.

A better alternative than a 2-inch slot and a 2-fish bag limit is to make 2013 a catch-and-release season. It’s not unprecedented. In 1962 and 1963, the DNR called off the Mille Lacs northern season — back when pike were in greater demand.

Rather than adopting a regulation that will result in disappointment, we should use this season to give the resource a rest and start the long overdue transition from Mille Lacs as a walleye fillet factory to Mille Lacs as a multi-species fishery, a water recreation mecca, and the state’s premier cultural and historical treasure.

After all, even if the lake gets back to normal, we’re still going to be stuck in this endless quest to eat as many walleyes as possible every year, which means we’ll be back in this same position in two, three or five years.

If I were a fishing guide or a launch captain, here is what I would tell my customers:

Mille Lacs walleyes are in serious trouble, so this is a conservation and education year.

Here’s what we’re going to do: First, we’re going out to fish for walleyes. I’m going to teach you how to catch them and how to release them, and chances are we’ll land a beautiful fish for your photo album.

After that, we’re going to leave the walleyes alone and fish for northerns, bass, muskies or perch. We’ll probably bring a few fish home for supper, which will be good for the walleyes, and I have some recipes that will make you forget you’re not eating walleye. If we’re unsuccessful or you don’t like bass or pike, we have a freezer full of commercially harvested walleye fillets to send home with you.

Finally, embracing a catch-and-release season gives us a bargaining chip with the Ojibwe bands who share the harvest. To our Ojibwe neighbors, I would offer this:

Out of concern for the lake, state anglers are willing to make this a catch-and-release season. We’re still going to kill some fish through hooking mortality, but not nearly as many.

In like fashion, we’d ask you to cut your harvest for 2013 in half again, to 35,000 pounds. That will allow you to continue teaching netting traditions to youth and to share your catch with elders, but it will also give the lake a chance to rest and recover.

We also ask you to consider this for the future: A system of rotating spawning refuges that protect some of the lake’s most hard-hit walleye spawning habitat each year. In exchange, we’ll accept the reality of treaty rights and spawning-season gillnetting and work together to make Mille Lacs a positive and welcoming destination.

To me, a catch-and-release season (and a good recipe for smallmouth bass) might also be a recipe for a better economy and a better community.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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