While fisheries managers try to figure out how to restore the struggling walleye population on Mille Lacs Lake, they're encouraging anglers to consider what had been unthinkable for many: eat bass instead.
Minnesota's statewide bass season opens next Saturday, but for the first time it opened on Mille Lacs this year on the same day as the walleye opener. The Department of Natural Resources liberalized the lake's bass and northern pike regulations this year. The agency hopes not only to cushion the economic impact of tighter walleye regulations on the resorts, bait shops and other businesses circling Mille Lacs, but to reduce predation to improve the survival of young walleyes.
Mille Lacs' battered reputation as the state's premiere walleye lake overshadows how it has become a premiere smallmouth bass fishery. It's not clear walleye purists will take the bait. There are cultural differences to overcome. Most walleye anglers catch them to eat them. But there's a strong catch-and-release ethic among bass anglers. Few smallmouth end up on the dinner table, so it's not well known that they can be very fine eating, too.
"The main draw on Mille Lacs always has been, always will be walleyes," said Terry Thurmer, owner of Terry's Boat Harbor near Garrison. "The bass fishing here is phenomenal. But most Minnesota people are not huge bass fishermen. There's some, but when they go to Mille Lacs they want walleyes."
• Previously: Outfitters seek reset of Mille Lacs walleye rules
Mille Lacs anglers caught an estimated 73,000 smallmouth bass last season but kept only about 1,800, said Brad Parsons, the DNR's central region fisheries manager. He said the lake's smallies can withstand more harvest pressure, especially among the smaller fish that make for the best eating.
So the DNR is letting anglers keep six smallmouth or largemouth bass per day from Mille Lacs, though only one smallmouth may be larger than 18 inches. And the agency has exempted the lake's bass from the catch-and-release requirement that takes effect elsewhere in mid-September. The lake's northern pike limit was boosted to 10. Anglers can keep only two walleyes, and they must be between 18 and 20 inches long though one can be longer than 28 inches. That's actually the same as last year, but a new nighttime fishing ban is expected to hit walleye fishing the hardest.
"If people want to have fun and catch fish, there isn't any fish more fun to catch than a smallmouth. They put up a big fight," Thurmer said.
Nothing is more exciting than a smallmouth exploding up from the depths to strike a topwater lure, said Bill Lundeen, owner of Lundeen's Tackle Castle near Onamia. He said some of the best opportunities for experiencing that are on the southern half of the lake, near the more than 200 reef markers that warn boaters to stay away from the rocks.
"As any bass fisherman knows, that's a neon sign that says 'Hey dude, fish here,'" Lundeen said.
Terry McQuoid, owner of McQuoid's Inn near Isle, said he's not sure if Mille Lacs' walleye anglers will turn to smallmouth bass or not. But he said his resort has long drawn plenty of bass anglers from across America. He pointed out that the lake's smallmouth bass and northern pike populations are both near record levels. While many other resorts on the lake struggled along with the walleyes last year, McQuoid said he had his second-best year ever in 2013, just 5 percent below his record best. So he's optimistic.
"We've seen fishing a lot worse than what this is going to be," McQuoid said.