TULSA, OKLA. — Good news is coming to Mille Lacs by way of Birmingham, Ala.
Mille Lacs, whose walleye woes are well-known following a downturn in the lake’s population over the past 15 years, has no shortage of smallmouth bass, some weighing 5 pounds and more.
In fact, Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society, or B.A.S.S., the kingpin of competitive bass fishing, recently named Mille Lacs No. 10 of the top 100 bass fishing lakes nationwide.
Which is why B.A.S.S., headquartered in Birmingham and owner of Bassmaster tournaments for professional, amateur, collegiate and even high school anglers, is bringing its Toyota Bass Angler of the Year Championship to Mille Lacs in September.
In addition to its fishing tournaments, B.A.S.S. is a specialty publishing and broadcasting conglomerate, producing a television show, Bassmaster magazine and other media, including live-stream broadcasts of some of its competitions.
Landing a championship the size and reputation of the angler-of-the-year event, which in many ways is the Super Bowl of competitive fishing, would be a crowning achievement for any angling destination.
Invited will be the nation’s top 50 bass anglers, based on points earned in B.A.S.S. Elite Series competitions that begin March 17 on the St. John’s River at Palatka, Fla., before wending through South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New York, Maryland and Wisconsin, then ending the year Sept. 15-18 on Mille Lacs.
Impressions gleaned in recent days while attending the Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, Okla., suggest that Minnesota, and the Mille Lacs area in particular, will benefit greatly from hosting the September contest.
Not only will millions of dollars be injected into the broader Mille Lacs community, the expanded reputation the lake will gain in print, on TV, on radio and online as a bass fishing hot spot will, in coming years, bring more bass anglers to the area with money to spend.
Admittedly, competitive fishing doesn’t enjoy the following in Minnesota it does in the South — even though more than 1 million people fish in Minnesota annually.
Per capita, in fact, more people might fish here than in any other state. What’s more, fishing tournaments are commonplace in Minnesota.
The same weekend the big B.A.S.S. tournament will be held on Mille Lacs, for example, a Cabelas Masters Walleye Circuit contest is scheduled for Cass Lake, attracting as many as 150 anglers, with more than $50,000 in prizes.
Minnesota also is home to some of the best competitive anglers in the world, among them Al Lindner, Gary Roach, Randy Amenrud, Steve Fellegy, Bruce Sampson, Pete Harsh and Ted Capra.
Yet fame of the kind often showered on competitive anglers in the South hasn’t caught on here yet.
Friday morning, not long after dawn, at a marina in Grove, Okla., hundreds of bass fishing fans braved mid-30s temperatures to see the 55 anglers competing in this year’s Classic clamber into their decal-laden Ranger, Triton, Skeeter and Bass Cat boats powered by 250-horsepower Yamaha, Evinrude E-Tec, Mercury and Suzuki outboards.
The crowd cheered as the anglers paraded in front of them before blasting off, each hoping to win the $300,000 first-place prize.
Later the same day, about 85 miles away in Tulsa, a few thousand fishing fans filed into an arena whose strobe lights, loud music and jumbo-screen images of competing anglers rivaled the glitz and glamor of NBA games.
The point was to watch the day’s bass catches be weighed, and to listen as competing anglers were interviewed.
Many who attended wore custom fishing shirts or other clothing designating the names of their favorite rods, reels, boats, motors or anglers — much like Vikings fans show up at games on Sundays to root for their team.
Mille Lacs lauded
Mike Iaconelli is a somewhat wacky and very accomplished competitive fisherman from New Jersey. His television and online broadcasts are hits, and he is followed closely on social media by bass anglers nationwide.
Iaconelli, his wife, Becky, and their two young children, Vegas and Estella, leave home in March and generally don’t return until September. Two high school-age kids join them in summer.
In Iaconelli’s boat Friday morning before blastoff, in addition to a multitude of rods, reels and baits, was a box of Milk Bones dog treats.
The last time the Classic was held on Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees (commonly called Grand Lake), Iaconelli had a YouTube-enshrined meltdown after a dog on a dock wouldn’t stop barking at him.
This time Iaconelli came prepared with delicacies to placate motor-mouth mutts.
“I really hope I qualify to come to Mille Lacs,” Iaconelli said. “I’ve fished it recreationally, and I’ve done a media event there. But I’ve never competed on the lake.
“I’ll say this: You take the top 50 bass anglers in the world and put them on that lake and they’ll open some eyes about the number and size of bass in it.”
Similarly, the legendary Kevin VanDam, or KVD as he’s known, hopes to earn an invitation to Mille Lacs in September.
“It’s a world-class all-star smallmouth fishery,” said VanDam, who has nearly $6 million in earnings. “And smallmouth bass are my passion. Fishing for them is what I’d rather do on my day off than anything else.”
Skeet Reese, the California angler who won the Classic in 2009 and who has more than $3 million in winnings, wants to head north, too.
“Here we are in the South, in bass fishing’s Mecca,” Reese said. “But I truly believe some of the best bass fishing is in the north.”
A first-class event
Some impressions after spending last week at the Classic, in part to follow Minnesota’s entry, the reigning individual collegiate bass fishing champion, Trevor Lo of the Twin Cities (see my story on Lo online at www.startribune.com/outdoors):
• The fishing industry, and related industries (Geico, Toyota trucks and GoPro are big Bassmaster supporters), help underwrite these competitions in return for media exposure. But high-stakes fishing competitions also offer important research and development opportunities for outboard motor, boat, electronics and other manufacturers. Improved baits and fishing techniques also are often developed in competitions where winners get to keep fishing and losers have to find real jobs.
• B.A.S.S., which was founded in 1968 by Ray Scott, and which has more than 500,000 members, does things first class. Example: The 55 qualifying Classic competitors weren’t in town just to fish. At various events they were welcomed by Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett and by the Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker, who thanked the anglers for coming “so the world can see the Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees as a destination spot.” Also, at a formal dinner for the anglers and their spouses, Bobby Knight, the retired college basketball coach, spoke.
• B.A.S.S. also has long been active in fisheries management, and hosted a daylong conservation summit in conjunction with the Classic. Angler access and resource preservation are critical to their continued success, its leaders say, and for nearly a half-century, B.A.S.S. has advocated that most, if not all, caught bass should be released. To that end, like all Bassmaster tournaments, the Mille Lacs contest will be live-release. And the Department of Natural Resources has promised to tag or otherwise study some of the caught fish to further their understanding of the lake and what lives in it.
A better future?
The B.A.S.S. tournament coming to Mille Lacs in September won’t be a panacea for the region.
An improved walleye fishery will take time, as will better relations between the region’s Chippewa and non-Chippewa.
Still, the chance to highlight Mille Lacs smallmouths should be seized enthusiastically.
With luck, it might be the catalyst that helps revitalize the region’s economy.