Could bass be the next boon for Mille Lacs?

Lundeen's Tackle Castle owner Bill Lundeen answers fishing questions.
Lundeen's Tackle Castle owner Bill Lundeen finds he is often answering questions related to fishing on Lake Mille Lacs.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

In Lundeen's Tackle Castle on the southwest corner of Mille Lacs Lake, owner Bill Lundeen likes to point out a massive fish mounted on the wall.

It's a smallmouth bass, caught on Mille Lacs — back in 1977.

Lundeen points to the fish as an example of the great bass fishing Mille Lacs has always offered. But until recently, it's been overshadowed by the more popular walleye.

"The popularity has really come on," Lundeen said. "But we've had some big bass in here for a long time. I guess maybe we're just getting a little better at getting them to the top of the water."

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A lone angler works a spot on the southwest corner of Mille Lacs.
A lone angler works a spot on the southwest corner of Lake Mille Lacs on May 24, 2017. The bass fishing season opens Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Mille Lacs' reputation as an outstanding smallmouth bass fishery is on the rise. That's partly due to efforts by state officials and local business owners who hope to keep anglers coming to the area despite the decline in the lake's walleye population.

Gov. Mark Dayton will be among the anglers trying his luck on Mille Lacs on Saturday, when the season for catching and keeping bass opens statewide.

The walleye fishing season on Mille Lacs is limited to catch and release this year, and walleye will be off limits entirely for three weeks in July. Lundeen and other local business owners hope bass help fill the gap.

Lundeen expanded his store's selection of bass fishing tackle. It now covers a whole wall, with walleye supplies relegated to one corner.

Spinner baits are a good way to tempt bass.
Spinner baits are a good way to tempt bass.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"Will 200 new bass boats replace 2,000 walleye boats that we're missing? No," he said. "Are we glad they're here, are we glad we have this market and they're coming? Sure we are."

Michael Mulone, B.A.S.S. director of event and tourism partnerships, said competitors in last year's tournament frequently caught 3-5 lb. smallmouth bass.

The public dock in Wahkon on Mille Lacs.
A public dock was installed by the City of Wahkon to encourage people to fish and enjoy the views of Wahkon Bay on Lake Mille Lacs.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"It is without a doubt one of the best smallmouth fisheries, if not one of the best bass fisheries in the country," Mulone said. "That's a big deal. There are thousands of lakes around the country. But the way it is there, it's just one of those places where it is just fantastic fishing."

Don Pereira, fisheries chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the success of last year's tournament came as a surprise.

"We knew that bass fishing was good on Mille Lacs, but we didn't really have an idea that this would happen," Pereria said. "What happened last year, it was spectacular."

Several of the top bass anglers in the country said Mille Lacs was the best smallmouth bass fishery they'd ever fished, Pereira said.

"The proof in that is the fact that they're coming back again this year," he said.

Promoters say the tournament helps stimulate the local economy as anglers, staff, sponsors, fans and media stay in hotels and resorts and eat in local restaurants.

Walleye on the water tower in Isle.
Anglers might have better luck catching a glimpse of a walleye like the one on the water tower in Isle rather than seeing one in Lake Mille Lacs.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

There does seem to be a long-term impact from all the attention, said Tina Chapman, executive director of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council and a local resort owner.

"I'm starting to hear from some of the resorts that they're seeing reservations from anglers and coming from all over — Arkansas, Texas, Missouri," Chapman said. "I think that will continue to escalate as the summer goes here and the word continues to get out."

For Terry McQuoid, owner of McQuoid's Inn on the lake, bass fishing used to be what he did on his days off because his customers weren't interested. That has changed, he said.

"It's probably our savior right now," McQuoid said. "Because in this past week, most of the people that we've had here are all smallmouth oriented. And they're all out of state, so they come for three to five days, or sometimes a week."

Bill Lundeen has increased his inventory of bass bait.
Lundeen has increased his inventory of artificial bait to meet the increase demand for those fishing for bass on Mille Lacs.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Joe Nayquonabe Jr. is CEO of Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, which oversees the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's businesses including Grand Casino Mille Lacs. He said last year's tournament brought an additional 14,000 visitors over the four days of the tournament.

"We saw some really good traffic visiting the area, scouting the lake — folks that were coming into enjoy gaming entertainment, staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants, visiting our bars," Nayquonabe said. Still, it's not clear whether everyone is seeing an economic benefit. Lundeen said he didn't see much of an uptick in business during last year's tournament, because most of the pro anglers come prepared.

"They've got more plastic baits and crank baits and stuff in their truck than I've got in my store," he said. "And if there's something that they're missing, their sponsor will make sure they have that before they go out on the water."

It's also not entirely clear what's causing the bass boom. The DNR's Pereira thinks it's related to longer growing seasons caused by climate change, which are making the lake more productive.

A lone tree leans over Lake Mille Lacs at Izaty's.
A lone tree leans over Lake Mille Lacs on the shoreline at Izaty's Resort in Onamia.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"Ice out happens earlier, freeze up in the fall happens later," he said. "So the number of warm days and bass lake warm conditions are more frequent with those longer seasons."

Data show the bass population is growing exponentially, although Pereira says there are signs it's starting to slow.

Until that happens, local business owners like Chapman hope the bass anglers keep coming.

"Mille Lacs is always going to be a walleye lake. We're not denying that," she said. "But the bass fishing has come a long way too, and people finally know about it."