ON LAKE MILLE LACS — Never in history have people who have visited this lake or lived along its shores been content to fish its fertile waters without keeping their catch.

Until recently.

As evidence, consider the 100 or so anglers who boarded four launches — group fishing boats — on a recent night to try their luck on Mille Lacs, Minnesota's second-largest lake.

Any walleyes they might catch during their four-hour excursions wouldn't be toted to a cleaning shack to be featured as the main course of a future dinner.

Instead, the fish would be released back into the lake.

Which was OK by these anglers. Indeed, they seemed excited by the opportunity.

"We'll try it here for 15 minutes,'' announced Paul Hellem, captain of a 53-foot steel-hulled launch that a short while earlier had welcomed aboard about 20 anglers. "If we don't get anything, we'll move.''

Hellem had guided the large craft a few miles from its home dock on Mille Lacs' western shore. The boat is one of four launches owned by Twin Pines Resort, and on this evening, a Saturday, all four are on the lake, each filled with customers happy to pay $45 apiece, bait and gear included, for the chance to catch — and release — walleyes and smallmouth bass.

Restricted walleye harvest rules have been in effect on Mille Lacs since a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed that eight Ojibwe bands hold off-reservation hunting and fishing rights in 12 east-central Minnesota counties.

In the years since, the lake's fishery has been co-managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the bands. A "safe allowable harvest'' of 150,000 pounds of Mille Lacs walleyes was established by the two groups for this year, with 87,800 pounds allocated to state-licensed anglers and 62,200 pounds to the bands.

The bands took about 50,000 pounds of walleyes this spring by netting and spearing, while much of the state's allocation will be assigned to an estimate of the number of walleyes that die after being caught and released. This leaves no room in the anglers' allocation for an actual harvest of walleyes until at least Sept. 15.

Steve Blumke of Eagan was OK with that. Part of a group of five who had driven to Mille Lacs from the southern metro for an evening of fishing, Blumke stood along the launch's railing, fishing rod in hand, hoping for a bite, while enjoying the cool vibe of a warm July evening.

"I've fished since I was a kid, when my dad would pick me up at noon on Fridays from school and take me,'' Blumke said. "But this is only my second time on a launch.''

As Blumke spoke, tunes by Grand Funk Railroad and other classic rockers pulsated over the launch's speakers, contributing to a party-like atmosphere. Some anglers plopped down in chairs to try their luck. Others, like Blumke, stood. Many had coolers by their sides, from which, soon enough, refreshments were retrieved.

On the starboard side of the boat, Ron Johnson, a Pennsylvania resident and former Minnesotan, was playing host to his grandson, Hunter Thornton, and a pal of his, Josh Brown, both from Florida.

"Believe it or not I fished off a launch owned by this same resort in the 1950s,'' Johnson said. "I just thought it would be a great place for Hunter, Josh and me to meet and do a little fishing.''

Asked if he was bothered by not being able to keep any fish, Johnson said no. "We took care of that,'' he said. "We had a walleye dinner at the resort before we came onto the boat.''

Mille Lacs is a relatively shallow lake whose bottom features various mud flats, or underwater plateaus where walleyes often congregate in summer. Hellem had positioned his boat over 3-Mile Flat, while Twin Pines' other three launches were a short distance away, on Banana Flat.

Slip-bobber fishing is the preferred angling method on launches, in part because it helps avoid tangles among anglers. As a bonus it's among the lake's best walleye-hooking strategies.

At a virtual bath-like 80 degrees on recent days, Mille Lacs' surface temperature concerns the DNR, because the number of fish that die after being caught and released rises with lake temperatures.

"We're not too worried about it yet,'' said Brad Parsons, DNR fisheries section chief. "We're at about 55 percent of our 87,800-pound allocation. That's less than where we were at this point the last couple of years.''

This spring, between May 15 and May 31, the DNR allowed Mille Lacs anglers to keep one walleye between 21-23 inches (or one over 28 inches). No harvest was allowed in June, and walleye fishing was shuttered altogether on Mille Lacs between July 1-July 15.

When walleye fishing restarted on the big lake July 16, June's no-harvest rule was reinstituted until at least mid-September, when anglers might again be allowed to take one walleye between 21 and 23 inches.

Parsons said Mille Lacs has seen slightly less angling pressure this summer compared with the past two summers. The walleye catch rate is also down — .56 walleye per angling hour in June, compared with .88 and 1.1 per hour the past two summers.

"But at .56 the catch rate is still good,'' Parsons said. "On most of our other large lakes, it's about .2 per hour.''

"Fish on!'' Hellem shouted, as he and his first mate, 16-year-old Kolby Sahr of Aitkin, rushed to the boat's bow, where Mari Sorensen of Plymouth was fighting a 19.5-inch smallmouth bass.

Fishing with her boyfriend, Alex Yurevich, and dad, Peter Sorensen, both also of Plymouth, Mari had already boated a dandy walleye. She seemed happy to return her catches to the lake.

This "new generation'' of Mille Lacs anglers is welcomed by resorts and other businesses, said Linda Eno, who with her husband, Bill, owns Twin Pines Resort and launch service,

"It's great that they come to Mille Lacs to fish on a launch or out of their own boats and they are willing to throw their fish back,'' she said "We've chased away people who won't do it, who want to keep fish. They've changed their fishing traditions and have gone to other lakes.''

The emergence of so many walleye anglers for whom harvest isn't a primary consideration might be unique nationwide. Muskie anglers almost uniformly return their catches to the water, as do many bass anglers. But walleyes are one of the tastiest fish on the planet, and the fact that so many anglers — admittedly, many of them casual — are willing to buy a license and pay a boat or guide fee to catch and release walleyes perhaps suggests a sea change in fresh-water angling — and management.

The phenomenon is even more pronounced on Mille Lacs in winter. More than 3 million angling hours were registered on the lake during the cold-weather months of 2019-2020, a record.

"Fish on!'' Hellem again bellowed, an exclamation that would echo across the launch more than 50 times while the group was on the water.

The focus of his attention was Shawn Jagow of Lakeville, whose fishing rod arched in a neat half-circle. Soon enough, a walleye showed itself near the surface and Hellem scooped it up with a long-handled net and handed it to Jagow.

With which she posed, smiling broadly, before releasing.


Editor's note: Twin Pines' website is here. Other Mille Lacs launches can be found here.