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Fishing Opener Comes to Mille Lacs Lake
By Leif Enger
May 8, 1998
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FIVE THOUSAND BOATS ARE EXPECTED ON LAKE MILLE LACS for Saturday's walleye season opener, and it should be a good one - the warm spring means better-than-average chances for anglers. But on Mille Lacs, the walleye season feels different this time around. Ojibway Indians, fishing under restored treaty rights, have already taken 30,000 pounds of walleye out of the lake. And there's a previously unheard-of concern that the fishing might actually be too good.

If you make a living on Mille Lacs, the walleye opener is the main course. It's the big hype; the Christmas rush. If you're a resorter and could write your own forecast, you couldn't do much better than this

Brusewitz: The walleye have been done spawning for a week now. Water's fifty degrees and rising. Conditions are about as perfect as you could want for angling.
Rick Brusewitz is a large lake biologist for the DNR, a job that means fielding anglers' grievances about the fish in Mille Lacs – like why aren't there more of them, and why aren't they bigger?

This spring, Brusewitz is in the unusual spot of hoping for a slow year.

Here's why: after Ojibway Indians reasserted their treaty rights, the walleye in the lake had to be divided – so many for the Indians, so many for everyone else. This year the Indians get 40,000 pounds. Everyone else, 220,000. All told, fishermen can take 260,000 pounds of walleye this season – then they have to stop.

Longtime resorter Eddy Lyback is thinking about that.

Lyback: With the way the weather's shaping up, I think the fishing's gonna be there, and I think there's a good possibility by the end of June, or July, we could be approaching that limit.
Lyback is president of the Mille Lacs Advisory Association, a group that promotes fishing and tourism. He says you have to keep 260,000 pounds in perspective: once, in a terrible season, anglers caught only 180,000 pounds of walleye. On the other hand, in 1992 they caught almost 1,000,000. If the bite is good this spring, the DNR's Brusewitz says the agency will have to act fast – writing new bag limits or other regulations to slow the catch down.
Brusewitz: That is a definite possibility, if it looks like the harvest is gonna exceed the safe harvest levels, then we'd be looking at changes. What type of changes, we don't know. But changes.
Lately, change has arrived in waves on Lake Mille Lacs. A seven year court battle reinstated hunting and fishing rights for eight Ojibway bands. The harvest limit came into being. And this spring, Indians netted and speared more than 30,000 pounds of walleye before the first non-Indian baited a hook.

Yet there's optimism among resorters. Ask Randy Usher – putting a coat of white paint on a pontoon boat on the west shore. The boat's as big as a church.

Usher: I believe it's the biggest boat on the lake. Close to it – 62 feet long. It weighs sixteen ton.
Saturday, Usher will be driving this boat; loading up his forty anglers, hauling them out to wherever the bite's on. He says his customers know about the harvest cap, they know about the gillnets – the boat's booked up anyway.
Usher: Haven't had anybody negative on any aspect of it. None. In fact, I look for it to be better than last year.
Locals point out things could be worse. The native fishing has gone peacefully. There were no TV pictures of rock-throwing protesters – and what would that've done for business?
Patty Odle: Nothing like this work in the spring – cleaner toilets in my cabins than in my house!
Patty Odle and her husband John own the Rocky Reef, a five-cabin west-shore resort. Like many resorters, the Odles were resentful of the Ojibway court victory. But they've also turned a shrewd eye to the future. This year they're reshaping their business: getting rid of some ice-fishing shacks, putting in fountains and flower beds.
Patty Odle: Not that the fishing's going to be gone, but should it be less, we're trying to change things so it's more family-oriented. So people can come up, bring the kids, still be by the water. We're putting in more RVs. Something more modern that will bring families and seniors, more than the hardcore, "Hey, I'm gonna go get me some walleye" fishermen.
Many resorters are picking up the strategy. And some other factors might take some pressure off the coveted walleye: the DNR says Mille Lacs is producing more and larger muskies. The population of smallmouth has induced some fishermen to switch to bass. And last week – on the opening day of rough-fish season – Nate Anderson was standing in the shallows, working ruin on the sucker population. His tackle? A bow and arrow. Most people don't know it, Nate says, but Mille Lacs is great sucker water.
Anderson: All right – the sucker's right in front of me there. I kinda want to aim a little bit below him, 'cause the arrow goes up a little when it hits the water. [sfx of shooting arrow] Aw, I missed him.
Lots of action, generous limits, and no crowds.
Anderson: I just bring a little garbage pail, so I can get a bunch and throw 'em in there.
Enger (reporter): A little garbage pail? that's a 30-gallon garbage pail!
Anderson: Yeah, well, we'll have it filled up in an hour or two I suppose...