Our View: Dayton shouldn't insist on a walleye season
We've come to expect assertive behavior from Gov. Mark Dayton, but even we were taken aback by his demand that Mille Lacs Lake be open for walleye during the ice-fishing season.
"It's crucial that there be a season, and it be as generous in terms of limits and opportunities as possible," Dayton said last week. "I will insist there will be one."
The last we checked, Dayton doesn't have a wildlife management degree. That's a decision best left to the fisheries division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The governor's outspokenness on the issue undermines the credibility of the DNR staff.
"We're not going to make any decisions until we have the data in hand," said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr after meeting with Dayton on Friday.
The DNR is about to begin a new analysis of the lake's walleye population, and it won't know until mid-October whether it would open Mille Lacs for winter walleye fishing.
To his credit, Landwehr deflected his governor's comments in an evenhanded manner. In fact, he probably was anticipating it. In an Aug. 7 email to his staff, Landwehr wrote, "I think there is going to be growing pressure to begin to outline what an ice-fishing season might look like on Mille Lacs."
Ever since the abrupt end of the open-water walleye season on Aug. 3, Landwehr and his DNR staff have faced plenty of second-guessing from anglers and resort owners alike. The DNR ordered the moratorium after a census showed anglers and Indian tribes with fishing rights already had exceeded the 40,000-pound quota set for 2015.
The walleye population on Minnesota's most popular fishing lake is at a 40-year low, and it's difficult to pinpoint a cause. The DNR suspects a confluence of factors, such as invasive species, warmer water temperature and several other components, is transforming Mille Lacs' ecosystem like never before.
Dayton's comments notwithstanding, the DNR has signaled that it's planning for an ice-fishing season, even if it's a limited one. An internal planning document calls for the DNR to "aggressively pursue" ice fishing options on Mille Lacs Lake.
It's not lost on DNR officials that the winter season is lucrative to resorts and other fishing-related businesses. Anglers spend more hours on Mille Lacs during the winter months — 1.5 million hours from last December through March compared with 337,000 hours during the open-water season — according to DNR data.
However, the walleye harvest in winter tends to be less in pounds than during the spring and summer months. If there is an ice-fishing season this winter, DNR officials are going to make sure it doesn't affect the long-term viability of Mille Lacs' walleye. It's better to have a few down seasons than several years of a depleted walleye population.
We commend Dayton for his passion to promote Minnesota's outdoors. In 2014, his administration launched "Only in Minnesota," the state's largest marketing campaign that highlighted Minnesota's distinctive camping, hiking, hunting and fishing attractions. This year, he proposed convening a special legislation session to pass an emergency financial aid package for resorts and other businesses in the Lake Mille Lacs area after the early walleye season closing.
Dayton's zeal for the outdoors would be better served if he reminded anglers that Mille Lacs also is a destination for northern pike, smallmouth bass and perch. If he wants to promote winter walleye fishing, there are other Minnesota lakes where the walleye are thriving.
Just please leave it to the experts to set the season.