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As Mille Lacs walleye season ends, DNR prepares to survey lake's fish population

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Brian Hammarsten of Minnetrista, Minn., unhooked a walleye he caught on Lake Mille Lacs.
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The on-again, off-again 2017 walleye season on Mille Lacs Lake officially drew to a close on Monday.

Beginning today, anglers won't be able to go after the prized state fish, although fishing for all other species remains open.

There's also a ban on using live bait, except for anglers fishing from shore or a dock. It's acceptable to use a sucker minnow 8 inches or longer to fish for muskellunge or northern pike.

Walleye fishing on Mille Lacs has been catch-and-release only all year, and was closed for more than a month earlier this summer.

The closure was controversial with business owners around the lake who depend on walleye anglers. The Department of Natural Resources said it was necessary to help prevent fish from dying after they're caught and released. Fish are most vulnerable to hooking mortality when water temperatures rise and fishing pressure is the highest.

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The closure was supposed to last three weeks, but the DNR extended it after data showed anglers had already exceeded the state's safe harvest level of 44,800 pounds.

State officials negotiated a buffer with the Ojibwe bands that cooperatively manage the Mille Lacs fishery. That allowed state anglers to harvest an additional 11,000 pounds of walleye above the quota, allowing the season to remain open through Labor Day.

Brad Parsons, DNR central region fisheries manager, said the lake has been popular with anglers since walleye fishing resumed Aug. 11.

"We did see an uptick in angling pressure after the walleye season reopened. We certainly expected that," Parsons said. "Fishing on Mille Lacs is so much driven by the weather. Wind and rain can really change the pressure estimates. But there were more people out there."

Parsons estimates that about half of the anglers are fishing for walleye, while the other half are targeting smallmouth bass or other species.

The DNR is gearing up for its fall assessment of Mille Lacs, which will be used to determine the health of the lake's fish population and to set next year's harvest levels.

Researchers will be using gill nets to sample small fish such as yellow perch and tullibee that walleye like to eat. They also will use electrofishing and gill netting to find out how the lake's walleye and northern pike are faring.

"That will give us the idea of the relative number of adult fish out there and the health of the population, and the recruitment of year classes coming up behind that strong 2013 year class that's really been driving the fishery," Parsons said.

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