LAKE MILLE LACS – Minnesota has been inhabited for more than 12,000 years, dating to the Clovis peoples, a short-lived bunch who spent a lot of time worrying about the unwelcome advances of mammoths, mastodons and saber-tooth cats.
Tensions among state residents today adhere to a somewhat less life-threatening tack, among these the apprehension that arises while deciding whether to eat pizza in a restaurant or, at twice the price, in a farmyard, and whether and how much to wager that Gophers football fans — or really anyone in Minnesota — ever will chant in unison, “Row the boat.’’
Major concerns, these.
But more consummately unnerving, to anglers as well as non-anglers, will be the disquiet that wafts across Mille Lacs beginning at 6:40 a.m. Sunday when three fishermen — in many ways, prize fighters, each — duke it out for several hours on this giant lake, mano-a-mano, cast after cast.
To the winner will go $100,000 and the title Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
To the non-winners will go … still-hefty paychecks, given the contest’s $1 million total purse. But no trophy.
Among the 50 pro fishermen who will be on Mille Lacs on Sunday vying for the championship, the lead contestant is Idaho angler Brandon Palaniuk.
After nine Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments this year that began on Cherokee Lake in Tennessee in February and ended on Lake St. Clair in Michigan last month, Palanuik led a field of more than 100 anglers by a slight 15-point margin heading into the three-day Angler of the Year Championship that began Thursday on Mille Lacs and ends Sunday.
Only the top 50 Elite Series anglers were invited to Mille Lacs by Bassmaster. Of these, just two — Oklahoman Jason Christie and Jacob Wheeler of Tennessee — are within striking range of Palaniuk and could win the championship outright for themselves.
Christie trails Palaniuk by12 points, and Wheeler is behind by 17.
Thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, one needn’t be a gull soaring over Mille Lacs on Sunday to watch the competition up close and personal.
Bassmaster of Birmingham, Ala., produces a raft of fishing tournaments nationwide. But it’s also a media company, and will stream action from the anglers’ boats on Sunday on Bassmaster Live (go to bassmaster.com to connect).
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Palaniuk caught only 10 bass on Friday, the second day of competition, while running from spot to spot, looking for fish for relatively brief periods before moving on.
“There haven’t been many other anglers on my spots,” he said.
Luckily — or perhaps more accurately, skillfully — he landed a 6-pound bass with only minutes remaining in competition Friday, allowing him to retain his slim led over Christie and Wheeler.
The 29-year-old resident of Hayden, Idaho, said he picked his second-day fishing locations during three practice days on the lake last week (before which, Mille Lacs was off-limits to Elite Series anglers for three months), and by studying contour maps of the Mille Lacs bottom.
Christie’s and Wheeler’s Mille Lacs bass-fishing wisdom presumably was divined similarly. But on a waterway as large as Mille Lacs — 132,000 acres — selecting the best of the best bass spots will prove critical Sunday, as will the application of flawless angling techniques.
Assessing weather changes and their likely effects on Mille Lacs bass also will be important.
Thursday, the first day of competition, was sunny with scant winds and a high in the low 80s. Friday, the wind picked up beneath cloudy skies, with a high in the low 70s. On Sunday, sunny skies are expected to return. But the high will be only 60.
The good news for Palaniuk, Christie and Wheeler, and for Minnesota anglers, is that the Mille Lacs smallmouth population appears to be holding up, even under the increased pressure the fish have seen in the past year, after Mille Lacs was named the nation’s best bass lake by Bassmaster magazine.
There were 48 limits of smallmouth bass caught by the 50 competing anglers on the first day of the Angler of the Year contest on Mille Lacs this year compared to 46 in 2016.
Additionally, more bass were boated the first day this year than on the first day of competition in 2016, 248 to 243.
The second day of competition this year also proved more productive than the second day in 2016. Fifty limits were caught this year, compared to 48 a year ago, and the number of bass caught also rose, to 250 from 248.
Doubtless all 50 anglers who blast off from Eddy’s Resort on Sunday morning will be intent on catching bass, preferably big ones and a lot of them.
The difference for Palaniuk, Wheeler and Christie is that their decisions about where to fish, how to fish and with what baits to fish could mean the difference between taking home a fat paycheck and a big trophy — and missing out on an opportunity that might never come their way again.
No big deal, perhaps, compared to the heebie-jeebies Clovis peoples felt when confronted by mammoths, mastodons and saber-tooth cats.
But by today’s standards, tension-filled nonetheless.
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Sunday’s Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship weigh-in begins in the parking lot of Grand Casino Mille Lacs at 3:45 p.m.