Opposition mounts to Mille Lacs smallie regulation
Garrison, Minn. — For a group whose mission is to preserve the trophy bass fishery in Lake Mille Lacs, the results of new fishing regulations this year, they say, could be dire.
DNR officials, meanwhile, say the more liberal regulations have been an option for several years, and they hope to retain the “quality” of the fishery while reducing numbers to some extent. Resorters around the lake seemed to have mixed feelings on the matter, but many see the newfound smallie (keeping) option as a replacement for walleyes, governed this year by an 18- to 20-inch harvest slot and a two-fish limit (one over 28 inches may be kept).
Some smallmouth fans have launched the website “savemillelacssmallies.com,” a site complete with a petition and commentaries from pro anglers and others, including George Liddle, of Ranger Boats, who maintains the smallie population of Mille Lacs is still “fragile.”
This year, following several years with regulations that allowed almost no keep of smallmouth bass (the regulation last year allowed for possession of one fish over 21 inches), the smallie regulation changed to allow anglers to keep six fish. There’s a 17- to 20-inch protected slot, and only one fish over 20 inches is allowed in possession.
The statewide smallmouth regulation allows, too, for the take of six fish, and there are no size restrictions.
According to the “save Mille Lacs smallies” website, “We fear the new regulations will send trophy smallmouth to the frying pan or the taxidermist, and destroy the small fish population. The harvesting could prove fatal for smallmouth reproduction and turn a world-class fishery into a barren sea.”
The website, too, offers this scenario: Twenty launches (the approximate number of launch services on the lake) times 25 anglers times six fish per angler: a potential harvest of 3,000 smallies per day.
Throw in the fact that each service could offer three trips per day, and the potential harvest of smallmouths rises to 9,000 fish, website authors say.
Furthermore, “These numbers only take into consideration potential launch harvests, and do not include guided outings and independent anglers.”
Linda Eno, of Twin Pines Resort and Motel just south of Garrison along Mille Lacs, says it’s too early to know if launch anglers will have much interest in smallmouth bass. The walleye bite, according to Eno, is just hitting its stride this spring.
But there are reasons to believe smallies may be an option at some point. The walleye bite will inevitably slow as the water warms, and low perch numbers mean day-launch people, including kids, may be looking for a midday option, which could turn out to be smallmouth bass.
But, Eno adds, she doesn’t believe launch anglers, or others, will put a big dent in the smallmouth numbers.
“As far as a boatful of people keeping six bass – I haven’t seen it, and I doubt it will ever happen,” she said.
Eno also says she and other resorter types are happy to promote the fact that more smallmouth bass may be kept this year, in light of the fact that the walleye harvest slot has been narrowed and the number of fish allowed in the bag was cut in half from last year.
“I look at this as a real positive,” she said.
The DNR’s take
Eric Jensen, DNR large lake specialist for Mille Lacs, said the liberal smallie regulation may have arrived at the same time as the conservative walleye regulation (which was prompted first by a 40-year low in last year’s assessment, followed by a 50-percent reduction in allowable harvest by state and tribal fishermen), but allowing the harvest of more smallies has been on the department’s agenda for a few years.
Two to three years ago, Jensen said, the idea of loosening smallie regs are brought up with an input group that assembles each late winter. Most lake interests remained cool to the idea until this year.
“There was always some reluctance,” he said. “I would call it grudging acceptance, let’s put it that way.
“It’s (big smallies) something that brings people in,” Jensen said, adding that if there are concerns down the road, changes can be made to the regulation.
But DNR evidence suggests a smallie crash is unlikely. The fish population is in good shape, officials say, the protected slot should ensure quality size, and, besides, few people on the lake target smallies.
When the first trophy smallmouth regulation took effect over a decade ago, “We had what was viewed at the time as a small population of fish, but unique in the quality we observed (larger fish) in that population,” Jensen said. “It’s not like that anymore; (the population) has grown quite a bit.”
Data suggest the smallie population may be 20 times what it was when the trophy regulation was enacted. A population study that’s ongoing may shed more light on smallmouth numbers in the lake.
While the 17- to 20-inch protected slot is in place to allow “quality” smallies to remain in the lake, reducing overall numbers could reduce pressure on the lake’s forage species, fish and other food shared with Mille Lacs’ other fish, like walleyes and northern pike. It could even boost the growth rates of smallies themselves, he said.
Jensen said it’s unlikely that boat anglers will shift suddenly their angling attention, even with fewer walleyes to be kept.
Last year’s creel survey during the open-water season showed anglers targeted walleyes 89 percent of the time. Smallies? About 4.3 percent of angling pressure was directed at that species, Jensen said. Angling pressure did increase for smallies as the summer progressed.
But, he added, smallie regs weren’t changed to compensate for reduced walleye opportunity.
“By no means are smallmouth bass being thrown under the bus,” Jensen said. “It’s not like we’re trying to get rid of smallmouths or anything like that.”
But folks like pro bass angler Janet Parker predict otherwise, especially given the cooler weather this spring and the potential concentration of smallies in shallow water.
“The new regulation could allow a smallmouth slaughter,” Parker says on the website.