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Calculating Walleye
By Leif Enger
October 8, 1998
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The first season of fishing under the restored 1837 Treaty is winding down on Lake Mille Lacs. The new rules allowed Ojibway Indians 40,000 pounds of walleye from the big lake. Non-Indian anglers were supposed to take up to 220,000 additional pounds, but those anglers far overshot that amount.

A COLD DARK DRIZZLE has hold of Lake Mille Lacs, but to watch the men boarding the long wooden guide boat at Eddy's Resort, you'd think it was clear and 70.

Voices: Hello fellas! Hi! Hey, here's a pro! No, that's my boy. I'm just along for the ride!
The season's good fishing has surprised some, since the Ojibway bands netted and speared most of their 40,000 pounds of walleye before the angling season began. Boat captain Mike Messersmith says anyone worried there are too few walleyes should go with him on a night launch.
Messersmith: Sometimes they bite better after midnight, you know? Like in October, 25 or 30 people on board, everybody catching their limit. Fish bite better at night.
One result of the 1837 treaty case was the establishment of a so-called "safe harvest level" - that is, how many walleyes could be taken from the lake without hurting fishing in subsequent years. Working from net counts and creel surveys, state biologists set this year's harvest cap at 260,000 pounds. Instead, outgoing DNR fisheries chief Jack Skrypek says the take will likely top 360,000 pounds.
Skrypek: Fish populations and harvest predictions are never really gonna be very precise. Mathematical models have an inherent margin of error, but 100,000 pounds! Yeah, that's a big error.
Biologists say they almost certainly underestimated the walleye population; then the early spring and warm water temperatures combined to produce a long, productive season. The state faces no penalty for overshooting its limit because of a three-year grace period allowed by the court. But under the treaty decision, Ojibway bands will gradually take more walleye, up to 100,000 pounds four years from now. As the native harvest rises, the sport-angling harvest will inevitably have to fall. Don Wedll is Natural Resources Commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band.
Wedll: You have a pool of walleye, and out of that pool you can take an extra amount each year. But ultimately you will affect the pool on a total basis, and we've really, really harvested future fish by exceeding the quotas that the biologists have set out.
The DNR's Skrypek says once the grace period is over, the state might be penalized for overshooting its limit; for example, the angling quota might be reduced the following year. In the meantime, the agency will meet this fall with resorters and anglers to discuss an unpopular topic: how to make sure next year's catch is smaller.