DNR: New estimate shows healthy Mille Lacs smallmouth population

A Mille Lacs smallmouth double.

Since the late 1990s, Lake Mille Lacs has become an increasingly popular destination for anglers who want to catch trophy-sized smallmouth bass.

It previously wasn’t known how many of these fish – prized more for their fight than their fillets – called the lake home, but a population estimate completed this year shows there are some 67,000 smallmouth bass in the 128,000-acre lake.

“This looks like a healthy population,” Tom Jones, regional fisheries treaty coordinator with the Minnesota DNR, said in an agency news release Thursday, April 19 announcing those numbers. “This estimate roughly represents the number of adult bass in the lake. It does not include bass under 12 inches.”

The DNR credits the Mille Lacs Smallmouth Alliance and Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation with helping in the estimating efforts. The Mille Lacs Smallmouth Alliance kept detailed records of their catches and provided length and tag numbers from more than 2,100 smallmouth bass, the DNR said, adding that Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation held several tournaments on Mille Lacs, including the statewide Tournament of Champions, and anglers provided similar data for more than 1,600 bass.

In 2013, smallmouth bass regulations changed to allow anglers more opportunities to keep smallmouth on Mille Lacs. The move was made so anglers could keep some fish during a time when walleye harvest was restricted or prohibited.

During the last five seasons, smallmouth bass regulations have varied, but they generally have allowed for the harvest of bass under 17 inches. A 20-inch smallmouth bass is generally regarded as a trophy fish, the release said.

In 2016 and 2017, Mille Lacs hosted the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, and in 2017 Bassmaster Magazine named Mille Lacs the best bass fishery in the nation.

From 2000 to 2012, anglers on Mille Lacs were limited to one bass over 21 inches, and a very small number of fish were harvested each year. The DNR’s first assessment of Mille Lacs smallmouth bass in 1999 supported the decision to restrict harvest of smallmouth bass, but a 2009 assessment found smallmouth bass in much higher numbers and in a much wider portion of the lake.

Though anglers have been allowed to keep more bass since 2013, creel surveys indicate that interest in keeping bass is low, the DNR said. The average number of bass kept each year is about 2,800. In recent years, anglers have caught and released more than 125,000 bass.

Bass season on Mille Lacs opens Saturday, May 12 – the same day as the walleye and northern pike seasons. Prior to Saturday, May 26, all largemouth and smallmouth bass must be immediately released. Beginning May 26, the combined bass possession limit is three, with one bass over 21 inches. All bass 17 to 21 inches must be immediately released.

More information about Mille Lacs can be found at mndnr.gov/millelacslake.

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