Somewhat lost in the game-changer announcement Monday by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about Mille Lacs walleyes were simultaneous declarations about another of the lake’s noteworthy species: bass.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Mille Lacs has a trophy bass fishery largely unmatched anywhere in the country, and the DNR’s move Monday to further protect these fish is welcome.
In recent years, the DNR has loosened Mille Lacs harvest regulations for bass and northern pike.
At the time, the Mille Lacs northern pike population, like its smallie population, was exemplary — and generally still is.
But when Mille Lacs was opened to northern pike spearing two winters back, a lot of these fish were stuck, especially big ones, and the lake is poorer for it.
Fortunately, no such harvest demand seems to exist for the lake’s big bass. Instead, most state anglers, especially its bass specialists, consider Mille Lacs a trophy bass destination — and want to see it stay that way.
The DNR on Monday voiced its agreement, announcing that:
• Anglers now (if they want) can keep four bass in any combination of largemouth and smallmouth, down from last year’s limit of six. Additionally, all bass 17 to 21 inches must be immediately released, and the length restriction of the largest fish an angler may keep was raised from 18 to 21 inches.
• The early bass harvest offered on Mille Lacs is eliminated, requiring that — like the rest of the state — all bass caught during the first two weeks of the season be immediately released.
• Mille Lacs’ exemption to the statewide fall closure of the smallmouth bass season remains, however. So smallmouth bass caught on Mille Lacs through Feb. 28, 2017, can be kept.
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said the new bass regulations were a compromise.
“Last year’s regulations were biologically sound but it was important that DNR also factor in the emerging social aspects in this year’s regulations,” Pereira said, alluding to the growing desire among anglers to catch — and release — big Mille Lacs bass.
Some will argue the DNR didn’t go far enough to protect the lake’s bass — that no one needs four of these fish, and that a smallie 21 inches or larger should never be kept, trophy that it is.
Those arguments might gain DNR support in the future. For now, especially given the lack of a harvest mentality among most Minnesota bass anglers, the actions announced Monday to protect Mille Lacs bass seem sufficient.
Why an emphasis on bass in a walleye state?
Because fishing is constantly changing.
Put another way: Mille Lacs — long known for its walleyes — might someday be equally respected for its bass.
It shouldn’t go unnoticed that many of today’s young anglers prefer to cast crankbaits or spinnerbaits or plastic worms for bass, rather than jig for walleyes.
Nor should it be forgotten that, no matter an angler’s opinion on competitive bass tournaments, these contests in many places in this country attract throngs of young people to fishing who otherwise might not ever bait a hook.
As long as Minnesota has a large and varied bass fishery, that possibility, among other positive angling outcomes, exists here as well.