Mille Lacs Lake - After a Year of New Regulations

I've made it no secret over the past few years. I am an admitted smallmouth junkie. I am obsessed. I can't get enough. I dream of deep water hook sets and top water explosions from my favorite species. I dream of 5 pounders jumping two feet out of the water while my heart pounds and I scream "Stay on! Stay hooked!"

Hello, I'm Jason, and I'm a smallmouth-a-holic.

I've also made it no secret that Mille Lacs lake in Central Minnesota is my favorite place to fish. Any day that I load up the boat and make the two hour drive north to this world class fishery is usually preceded by a sleepless night, much like that of a kid on Christmas Eve, and much like that kid, Christmas morning brings a renewed energy and enthusiasm that masks the lack of sleep from the preceding night.

Mille Lacs lake has been known primarily as a walleye fishery, and is protected as such. Immense fishing pressure on the walleye population has required very restrictive slot limits (Release immediately all walleye less than 18″ or greater than 20.0″, except one over 28.0″ may be harvested. Possession limit is 2, with only one over 28.0″.) placed on the lake, this fishery would have been played out long ago as a walleye fishery were it not for management efforts by the MN DNR. The same governing body that stocked muskies, the apex predator of the northern lakes, into the lake in 2004, 06, 08,10 & 12. 

Enter political pressure and an unwillingness to adjust to change, and we find ourselves in the current mess that is Mille Lacs Lake, and the power struggle that is starting over the direction of the fishery. While Mille Lacs has enjoyed a reputation as the premier walleye destination in Minnesota, most seasoned walleye anglers will tell you that it is over rated and that they would rather go to (enter favorite walleye lake here) instead of dealing with the highly pressured population of fish found on Mille Lacs. 

What Mille Lacs does have to offer is an ideal habitat for other game fish species. Yes, it can be a great lake for walleyes in reasonable numbers, but it is also well suited for other species. Trophy largemouth bass can be caught in the bays, pike enthusiasts can find better than average sized pike roaming the waters, muskies grow to enormous sizes with many pushing the limits of both the state and world records, but perhaps no fish is set up to thrive in Mille Lacs like the smallmouth bass. 

Take a drive around the lake with your electronics and you will find a world of sand bars meeting rock edges, weeds dropping off onto rock reefs, and transitioning hard bottom from shallow to deep water. Small bait fish are available, but the population of crayfish make the rocky edges a prime hunting ground for the brown bass, and provide a more than ample supply of fattening forage to produce world class fishing opportunities for bass anglers.

I'm not kidding you when I say that probably 8 out of my top 10 fishing days of all time have happened on Mille Lacs lake in the past three years. I could spend hours recanting 80-100 fish days with the average weight being at or over 4 pounds. I could tell you about my personal best 6 pound 4 ounce smallie I caught last summer. I could go on and on about the obvious state record fish that I lost at the boat while filming. The fish was so big I honestly don't even know how to guess a weight, and almost drove me to tears when it pulled off my hook. It's what gets me up at 3:00 AM to make the trip. 

That thought of the next hook set being a new "best story".

Now it all hangs in the balance.

It's no secret that a majority of walleye anglers are not huge fans of smallmouth. Almost every tournament I have fished on smallmouth waters led me to a local watering hole with some half sauced up local telling me"Good, go kill those stupid smallmouth. Always *hiccup* stealing my leeches" or"Get those things out of the lake, they are killing the walleyes" 

What? Killing the walleyes? ...and if you ask me, having a four pound smallmouth grab my leech and "steal" it sounds like a pretty good change from trolling Lindy rigs all day. 

But to each his own. You like walleyes, I like smallmouth. Live and let live, right?

Wrong.

If you live in the mighty land of 10,000 walleye lakes you can't be bothered to consider the draw of bass fishing. Not when there's walleyes about. I mean after all, people come to Minnesota to catch walleyes, so we can't let the resort owners or local economies suffer by not protecting walleye fishing at any cost. Our legislators and governing bodies are so convinced that walleye are the main event in Minnesota that we are willing to cut off our nose to spite our collective faces! Certainly no one will come if there are no walleyes to be had!

The past years have been good to smallmouth on Mille Lacs. Regulations were catch-and-release for any fish under 21 inches, allowing for one fish to be kept if it measured over 21. What was the cumulative result of these regulations over the past decade? I think I've laid it out above, but suffice to say we now boast one of the absolute best smallmouth fisheries in the country, if not all of North America, right here in the borders of our beloved state. At least we did.

Fast forward to the end of this season after the new regulations went into effect, which read:

Smallmouth Bass: Release immediately all 17″ through 20″. Possession limit is 6, with only one over 20.0″.

Now, to understand why this is disastrous for Mille Lacs you must understand that many of the resorts on the lake use "launches" or large pontoons to take large groups of anglers out fishing for walleyes. These big groups are basically "meat rakes" dropping 10-20, even 30 lines in the water on one spot, combing the bottom of the lake for delicious walleye fillets  I've been told by many people in the past that they occasionally caught smallmouth, but had to put them back. Now they don't, and guess what...they aren't always releasing those fish. Several people I have spoken with have told me that the launches that they went out on filled coolers with both smallmouth and walleyes.

Surely this sort of thing can't hurt a lake that size that quickly, right? Why don't we ask the walleye population that has to be micromanaged to survive against the fishing pressure put on by anglers looking to fill their plates.

If you think smallmouth are ever going to be stocked to replenish the population I have a bridge to sell you.

A major factor playing into the new regulations is the increasing number of walleye anglers complaining about the lack of walleyes and the growing number of smallmouth. Last fall was almost laughable as we watched boat after boat trolling back and forth in deeper water while we caught huge numbers of trophy walleyes in the shallower water while fishing for smallmouth. I spoke with walleye guys at the boat ramps on several occasions who complained that the walleyes just weren't there anymore. They offered lots of reasons, but smallmouth "taking the lake over" was always on their list. 

Now I'm not a walleye expert by any stretch, but with decreasing perch populations, I'm guessing that the walleye still want to eat. With abundant crayfish populations roaming the shallower weed edges and rock breaks, it's my belief that the fish have adjusted to the changes in the lake. Maybe the anglers need to do the same? 

My experience on Mille Lacs this year has steadily seen numbers of fish caught decreasing after only one year of the new regulations. My last trip to the big pond saw a bunch of nice fish, but the numbers were less than half what I would expect this time of year, and I'm hearing the same story from almost everyone I talk to about the lake. If this keeps up, our gem of a smallmouth fishery will be a distant memory before we can do anything about it.

One needs look no further than Green Lake in Spicer, MN to see what can happen when the walleye anglers join together to get rid of smallmouth. The smallmouth were protected on Green for years, and the lake was amazing! Shallow shoals and rocks were littered with 4-5 pound fish. When the ban was lifted bass circuits flocked to the lake. Anglers stayed in hotels, ate at the local restaurants, and washed away a day on the water with a cold beverage before heading to bed. 

Also after the ban, locals starting bragging about how they used smallmouth as fertilizer in their gardens, how they gutted them and threw them back, and even took out ads in the paper bragging about how delicious smallmouth were to eat. They even included a recipe in the ad! The ad also mentioned how they wanted to get the fish out of the lake.

Now Green Lake is a shadow of what is was just five years ago.

Why can't we capitalize on the smallmouth as a trophy fish? Why is is all about walleyes? Smallmouth are special fish, they aren't in every lake like largemouth, but they do share water with walleyes.  Do we really think the bass population in Mille Lacs or any other lake is incapable of attracting anglers? It's the most popular game fish in the world for cripes sake! Why not try to attract major fishing circuits to the lake and give temporary lifts to the regulations for the tournaments? Why not advertise the World Class bass fishing available? 

How can you help? We need to band together as a fraternity of anglers and save this lake from it's inevitable downfall. Please sign the petition at this site:

Save Mille Lacs Smallies

Let's not stand on the sidelines while we watch things go downhill. Let's get vocal and let's do what we can to save our resource!