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Fishing: Not too early to look ahead to open water season

I know we are still weeks away from the end of the ice fishing season, but it is not too early to pay attention to what is in store for us for this upcoming open water season. The ice bite can be a good lake indicator for the potential bite for the open water season. The good bite of the summer continued into the early ice season. Most anglers are hoping this next summer will be as good as it was last year.

Even though the ice bite has been pretty good this winter, the weather has reduced the amount of ice fishing pressure on many lakes. This is not just the case in our area, but all over the state. Reduced numbers of anglers out on the lakes, means reduced harvest rates, which usually translates into better summertime angling catch rates. 

The last two fall open water scenarios had us contending with very shallow water conditions at area accesses. The late ice out followed by significant rain last year helped raise lake levels. This year the snow conditions we currently have will help (unless you live in Fargo/Moorhead…better start sandbagging!).

We will still need some good spring moisture to bring lake levels up to where they need to be. My guess is that most of us would like to see that moisture come in the form of rain and not snow. The snow, cold, and wind with this winter to remember, has most of us already burnt out on this winter.

An issue for the upcoming open water season that will get more attention soon, is the concerns and decisions surrounding the famed Mille Lacs Lake. Mille Lacs is only a couple hours from us and many anglers from our area take advantage of the fantastic fishing the lake has had to offer fisherman. It is not only a world class walleye lake, but the musky and smallmouth bass fishing are as good as it gets anywhere in the state. It has been a great destination for walleye anglers to go that want to catch walleyes over 20 inches consistently, and at the highest catch rate in the state.

The Mille Lacs walleye situation is getting significant attention from the DNR and the eight Chippewa bands that net, spear, and angle harvest the lake. Last year, if you remember, the Chippewa bands agreed to cut their harvest rates in half to about 71,000 pounds. Because of the late ice off last year, the tribes only harvested about 15,000 pounds. The DNR imposed a two inch slot and a two fish harvest for the big lake. Anglers took about 100,000 pounds out of the lake and another estimated 60,000 pounds were lost to hook mortality (partially because of the extremely warm surface water temps on the lake during the mid-summer).

This year, the DNR will probably continue with the two inch slot and two fish limit to reduce harvest rates. The Chippewa bands will only harvest 17,100 pounds this year out of Mille Lacs, but will most likely harvest other lakes to make up the difference for their allotted quota. No decisions by the tribes has been formally made yet, and the list of other lakes has not been decided yet.

The ice conditions on Mille Lacs have slowed the winter harvest. That should help. The state intends to try to hold the angler harvest rate to 42,900 pounds for this upcoming open water season.

I am guessing with all the controversy surrounding the lake, the number of anglers will be significantly lower this year. With the reduced harvest rates, slot limits, and nature’s ability to handle itself, I predict it will only take a couple of seasons for Mille Lacs to recover.

A few years ago everyone thought that Leech couldn’t rebound. It has. Red was dead — not anymore. Locally, some years ago, the Pines and Lida were “dead seas”. The slot limits implemented on those lakes have turned them into great “go to” fisheries.

I do feel bad for all the businesses that rely on the lake (resorts, restaurants, bait shops, guides, launch services, etc., etc., etc.…). Can you imagine the summer impact on our area if our lakes were going through these concerns? They will hurt for the next couple of seasons after having a down year last year. This situation is a good reminder for all of us to practice good stewardship. Practice selective harvest and catch and release (handle fish with respect).

Story by Brad Laabs (Laabs runs Brad Laabs’ Guide Service in Detroit Lakes.)