As the debate over how to manage the walleye of Mille Lacs has dragged on, the lake's reputation as a destination for smallmouth bass fishing has continued to rise.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave that reputation a boost this week when it called the lake's smallmouth bass population healthy based on a new estimate.
"We do think that the very small amount of harvest that goes on out there now is sustainable," said DNR regional fisheries manager Brad Parsons.
Parsons said the agency didn't have solid numbers on the bass population prior to the survey, which was conducted last year by electroshocking, catching and tagging thousands of fish. Anglers in fishing tournaments and volunteer clubs also added information about their catches.
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Based on the data, the DNR estimates there are about 67,000 adult smallmouth bass in the 128,000-acre lake.
"Whether that seems like a lot or not is really hard to say," Parsons said. "We have so few bass population estimates in our state, and certainly nothing on this sort of scale."
In the last couple of years, anglers have been averaging a catch of about 125,000 smallmouth bass each year, Parsons said.
"There's obviously a lot of recycling of fish, a lot of catch and release, and those fish are surviving well," he said.
Parsons said the DNR will keep last year's smallmouth bass regulations that require the release of any fish between 17 and 21 inches.
"We really want to protect those big fish that people are really excited to go catch on Mille Lacs," he said.
From 2000 until 2012, anglers on Mille Lacs were limited to keeping one bass over 21 inches. Since 2013, they've been able to keep more.
Jim DaRosa, president of the nonprofit Mille Lacs Smallmouth Alliance, said his group has been prodding the DNR to get an accurate count of the lake's bass.
"What's good about it is that now that the DNR does have some good scientific data of what they're dealing with, hopefully they'll take that data then and apply management techniques based on science," he said.
The lake gained national attention as a smallmouth bass destination when the Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship was held on Mille Lacs in 2016, then returned last year.
In 2017, Bassmaster Magazine named Mille Lacs the best bass fishery in the nation.
"I know there's more pressure on the lake than there ever has been before for smallmouth bass because of the national spotlight that's been shone on it," DaRosa said.
DaRosa runs a guide service on the lake, and said about 70 percent of his business comes from anglers from outside of Minnesota.
"They're hearing about the lake, it's put on the bucket list," he said. "And bass fishermen will travel thousands of miles to pursue their sport."
Mille Lacs isn't the only Minnesota lake seeing an increase in smallmouth bass as climate change causes lake temperatures to rise.
"They are a warmer water fish," Parsons said. "And as our lake temperatures and our growing seasons have changed over the course of the years, bass have expanded into new places. There are more in many of the lakes that people fish."