In a state where walleye is king, largemouth bass are treasured and smallmouth bass are highly sought, white bass are little-known and mostly ignored.

But for Minnesota's growing number of Southeast Asian anglers, white bass -- native to the state's larger rivers and averaging about 1.5 pounds -- are similar to a popular fish in their native lands and are coveted for being catchable and tasty. Minnesota anglers regularly flock to Devils Lake in North Dakota, where white bass are plentiful.

"Thousands of people line the shore to fish white bass, and about 100 percent are Southeast Asian," said Pajtsheng Vang of Lake Elmo, president of a local sportsman's group pushing to improve white bass fishing here.

Vang and others believe Minnesota could offer better white bass fishing. Prompted by the Southeast Asian community, the Department of Natural Resources plans to boost white bass visibility, test fish for contaminants, offer information on where to fish for them and stock them in a Vadnais Heights lake this year to try to increase fishing opportunities.

If successful, other Twin Cities lakes could be stocked with white bass, too.

"It's really different for us to do this," acknowledged Dirk Peterson, DNR regional fisheries manager. "This is a species that is good angling fun, it's good to eat but for the most part is an incidental catch for most anglers. This will raise the profile of this critter a little bit."

The DNR intends to move cautiously, and there are several hurdles to clear, he said. But there definitely is interest in white bass.

There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Southeast Asian anglers, said Josee Cung, a DNR Southeast Asian liaison officer. "It's not an insignificant number," she said. "If there was a better supply of white bass, they would stay in town and spend their money here, and that would be a win-win situation for everyone."

Vang and others are pleased the DNR is responding.

"This issue has been around for 15 years," he said. "In the past there was no organization to promote it." That's why his 400-member group -- the Capitol Sportsman's Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association -- got involved, Vang said. The group has a wide variety of interests beyond deer hunting.

"We looked at DNR's budget, and zero dollars went to white bass," he said. The DNR included the issue in last weekend's annual Roundtable meetings with constituents in Brooklyn Center.

"We manage lakes in southern Minnesota for walleyes [where they don't naturally reproduce], why not white bass?" asked Dave Schad, DNR fish and wildlife section chief.

Stocking cautiously

Peterson said white bass will be netted in Pleasant Lake, part of St. Paul's water supply system and closed to fishing, and transferred to nearby Sucker Lake, which is connected to Pleasant Lake. Shore fishing is allowed on Sucker. White bass are in the lake system because it long ago was linked to the Mississippi River.

The problem is that zebra mussels, an invasive species, are present in the system. So while the DNR is willing to move white bass from Pleasant to Sucker, it would have to find another source of fish to stock in lakes not already contaminated with zebra mussels.

"We don't know where that is right now," Peterson said.

"Even if we found a trapable population, we'd have to go through disease testing for three years to make sure they don't have diseases that we're passing around."

Recommendations from a white bass workshop suggest only lakes in the Mississippi River drainage downstream of St. Anthony Falls, including the Minnesota River and St. Croix River downstream of the St. Croix Falls dam, be stocked. Lakes should be small and in an urban area, likely St. Paul or nearby cities -- close to the major Southeast Asian population.

The list of east metro lakes that eventually could be stocked includes lakes Alice, Beaver, Bennett, Colby, Como, Fish, Island, Silver and Sucker. The stocking would be experimental, and Peterson said it's unknown whether the effort would be successful.

"We don't have much knowledge about white bass," he said.

Fish tainted here?

White bass are present in the St. Croix River and the Minnesota River, both of which could provide some good fishing opportunities, Peterson said. But fish samples taken nearly 20 years ago show the white bass had high concentrations of contaminants, including PCBs and mercury. The state Health Department recommends eating only one meal per month of white bass from the St. Croix.

But Peterson said those recommendations are based on old data. The DNR intends to test white bass from the St. Croix this year to determine if the fish are cleaner now than 20 years ago.

"Right now we have to be cautious about encouraging too much catching and eating of those fish without an updated consumption advisory," Peterson said.

Said Vang: "When our people catch it, they eat it ... so we're trying to make sure it's healthy."

The Cannon River system south of the Twin Cities and the Minnesota River in the Ortonville area also could provide some quality white bass angling, Peterson said.

The DNR also intends to create a web page that provides more detailed information about white bass fishing, and might publish a brochure.

Still, the DNR's Peterson said the agency is in uncharted waters. It's uncertain whether stocking will work or that the fish would be susceptible to angling.

"We're not exactly sure how it will play out," he said.

Doug Smith •