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Minnesota DNR reverses live bait ban at Mille Lacs Lake

MILLE LACS LAKE — Walleye anglers on Mille Lacs Lake will be able to use live bait this summer after all. In a surprising turnabout, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Thursday reversed its position on the use of live bait announced last month.

Under regulations released in March, only anglers on commercial launches would have been able to use live bait. That rule was part of a larger package of regulations aimed at conserving walleyes on the troubled lake, including a rule that requires anglers to release all walleyes they catch.

But after receiving feedback from anglers and other stakeholders, the agency on Thursday announced its decision allowing all Mille Lacs Lake anglers to fish with live bait when the season opens on May 14.

“The DNR is hearing that anglers are accepting of the catch-and-release aspect of the walleye season, but members of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee heard clear concerns about the live-bait restriction, as did the DNR,” DNR fisheries section chief Don Pereira said in a statement.

The DNR decided to allow live bait after committee members and the DNR met Wednesday to discuss the live-bait ban, DNR officials said.

“Our discussion showed the DNR and the committee are determined to work together to protect the resource while still providing the best recreational opportunities on Mille Lacs for a wide range of users,” said Dean Hanson, who operates Agate Bay Resort in Isle and co-chairs the advisory committee.

All other Mille Lacs regulations announced March 21 remain in place, including the provision that requires all walleyes caught to be immediately released.

The new regulations come as the DNR is working to conserve young walleyes so they can mature and become spawners, thus helping the lake’s walleye population to recover. Hooking mortality — an estimate of the number of fish that die after being caught and returned to the water — is a factor in keeping state anglers under this year’s state walleye allotment.

Hooking mortality increases as water temperatures warm and catch rates increase. Studies show anglers using only artificial bait can reduce hooking mortality substantially because fish are less likely to swallow artificial bait and suffer internal damage from a hook.

The estimated number of walleyes that die from hooking mortality are counted toward the state’s walleye angling harvest allotment, which, if reached, would require the DNR to close the walleye season on Mille Lacs.

Removing the live-bait restriction does not pose any conservation risk because the state’s walleye allotment of 28,600 pounds established by the DNR and eight Chippewa bands remains in place, DNR officials said. A federal court decision requires that walleye fishing on Mille Lacs be suspended if anglers exceed the limit.

Pereira said the initial decision to include a live-bait ban for Mille Lacs regulations reflected the desire of anglers and area businesses to keep walleye fishing open as long as possible this summer. Last summer, the walleye season on Mille Lacs was closed Aug. 3 after anglers reached the safe-harvest quota for the open-water season.

Anglers and the Mille Lacs Advisory Committee members said live bait is an important part of the Mille Lacs fishing experience, DNR officials said. DNR staff said they learned that it would be difficult for some anglers to adapt to using only artificial bait and that it could particularly discourage young anglers; bobber fishing with live bait has a long tradition on the lake. Those concerns prompted Wednesday’s meeting between the DNR and the Mille Lacs Lake Advisory Committee.

Hanson said he believes this discussion shows the advisory committee process is working.

“We focused on prolonging the walleye season as long as possible by whatever means were available,” Hanson said.

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