ON LAKE MINNETONKA
With one foot on the pedal of his bow trolling motor, Bob Turgeon eased his boat quietly into a narrow bay of this lake Wednesday afternoon. Viewed by any of the many Canada geese that traded back and forth over the lake, the waterway Turgeon traveled probably resembled a long finger, with its water shallow and nearly crystalline clear.
In any previous year dating back as far as anyone can remember, what Turgeon was doing — looking for bass — would have been illegal. Forever in Minnesota, except in the northeast part of the state, these fish have been off limits to anglers during the first two weeks of the state’s regular open-water season, which began this year May 9.
“The idea has been to protect spawning fish,” Turgeon said.
But to serious bass anglers — Turgeon is one — that “idea” never made sense. Now the Department of Natural Resources agrees, and this year is debuting early season catch-and-release fishing for bass, beginning with the May 9 walleye and northern pike opener.
A matter of weeks
In many years, depending on location of a given lake or river in the state — whether farther north or farther south — the peak of bass spawning didn’t occur until after Memorial Day weekend, the traditional time that bass fishing (and harvesting) began throughout much of Minnesota.
What’s more — this was the real confusing part — Wisconsin always has opened its bass fishing seasons with its inland walleye and northern pike seasons on the first Saturday of May. This date sometimes falls two weeks before Minnesota begins northern pike and walleye fishing, and as much as a month before Minnesota makes bass legal fare statewide.
To further confuse the issue, Wisconsin protects smallmouth bass in the northern part of the state until mid-June (June 20 this year), premitting only catch-and-release. While in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, which generally includes the region east of Hwy. 53 to the North Shore, all bass are legal to be harvested beginning with the walleye and northern pike seasons, and always have been.
Presumably, at least some overlap exists in the education and training of Minnesota and Wisconsin fisheries managers, given that many of them graduate from the same universities and study the same textbooks.
So why would one state manage bass so much differently than its neighboring state?
And why is Minnesota changing its bass-fishing rules so dramatically this year? If the state’s bass needed protection during the first two weeks of its inland season for the past umpteen years, why don’t they still?
When I called Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Don Pereira the other day to discuss bass fishing, I tried to put him at ease by saying, “I’m not calling about Mille Lacs” — a topic about which Pereira is frequently asked.
Instead, I said, I wanted to discuss the new state bass regulations this year that allow catch-and-release fishing for both largemouth and smallmouth bass beginning with the walleye and northern pike seasons — this in addition to the traditional bass-harvest season in the Arrowhead that began as usual with the northern pike and walleye seasons.
Said Pereira: “Actually, there’s a parallel between the new bass regulations and what’s going on at Mille Lacs with walleyes.”
At Mille Lacs, Pereira said, spawning walleyes are producing plenty of eggs to sustain the species at a reasonably high level. The problem occurs after hatching, when for whatever reason, fry, or baby fish, aren’t sustaining themselves in sufficient numbers past their juvenile years into adulthood.
The similarity to bass?
“The bottom line,” Pereira said, “if a fish population is healthy, and our bass population is very healthy, its reproduction capability in a given year is way more than is needed to maintain that population.”
The fact that largemouth and smallmouth bass seem to be expanding their ranges throughout the state, perhaps due to a longer growing season, further supports the notion that these fish won’t be hurt by additional angling pressure, Periera said. This runs counter to the long-held thinking by Minnesota fisheries managers that spawning bass need to be protected from anglers.
After all, that’s frequently the case with walleyes.
At Cut Foot Sioux near Grand Rapids and the Sea Gull River along the Gunflint Trail, for example, spawning walleyes often still are congregated when the regular inland fishing season opens.
The DNR responds by closing these areas to angling. Otherwise, walleye populations in those waters, and nearby, could be diminished.
Similarly, as Turgeon and many other bass anglers know well, Minnetonka’s largemouth bass gather each spring in its shallow bays, where females lay eggs in nests, which are jealously guarded by males.
Wednesday afternoon on Minnetonka, Turgeon and I found mid-lake water temperatures of about 60 degrees, or about 10 degrees cooler than is ideal for bass spawning.
Consequently, in the shallow bay where Turgeon guided his boat, we spotted only a handful of bass, and even fewer nests. It simply was not yet prime time for bass spawning.
When that time comes, in another week or two, a bait cast to a male bass (or, depending on circumstances, a female) on or near a nest often will be struck viciously.
Which is great for the angler, because fishing under these conditions can be fast and furious.
The concern has long been that bass caught by anglers while protecting the nests, even if released, leave the eggs vulnerable for a brief time to being gobbled up by nearby bluegills or other fish, thus reducing the reproductive capability of the bass.
Not to worry, said Pereira.
“In any given year, if you harass some males on the nest and some of the eggs are lost as a result, it’s not going to make a difference to the overall reproduction of our bass.
“The other thing about bass,” Pereira said, “if you look at our creel data, our harvest rate of these fish is very low. So our belief is that opening catch-and-release bass fishing with the regular walleye season isn’t going to affect the bass population at all.”
Not an easy catch
Bass can be among the easiest fish to catch in Minnesota, and, at times, the trickiest.
Minnetonka is a case in point.
Flush with largemouth bass, and many big ones, the lake nonetheless can be a challenge. The lake’s widespread milfoil often grows thick, requiring anglers at times to cast with pinpoint accuracy to find openings for their baits.
Also, milfoil has infested the lake long enough to contribute to the formation of a green, algae-like substance that in places drifts atop the lake bottom, providing still more places for bass to hide, while limiting the types of baits that can be used to catch them.
Finally, the lake is extremely clear, probably due to its zebra mussel population, requiring anglers to make extra-stealthy approaches and/or long casts.
Still, Minnetonka remains one of the state’s best fishing lakes — a metro-area gem now polished a little brighter with its longer season for bass, some of which on Wednesday afternoon were fooled by plastic worms rigged wacky style.
I had a final question for Pereira:
“If bass won’t be hurt by an early two-week catch-and-release season, could they also sustain a two-week harvest season at that time, which would mean opening bass fishing each year in Minnesota with the northern pike and walleye seasons?
“My hunch,’’ Pereira said, “is that we could do that. The harvest rate of these fish is so low, I don’t think it would make a difference.”