Conservative regs for Mille Lacs pike, smallies

Onamia, Minn. — Back in 2014, when the walleye quota on Lake Mille Lacs was slashed to 60,000 pounds from 250,000 pounds the year previous, the DNR tried to steer harvest toward smallmouth bass and northern pike.

It wasn’t because it believed the two species were responsible for the decline of walleyes, but more to provide relief for the local economy, allowing increased harvest of the species as walleye harvest was being cut.

But those liberal smallmouth bass and pike regulations are expected to be pared down when the DNR releases this year’s regulations for the lake – likely sometime next week.

“It’s mainly a user-driven thing,” said Don Pereira, DNR Fisheries chief. “If there isn’t a strong need to liberalize the take of smallmouth, then we won’t do it.”

This reversal pleases Jim DaRosa, president of the Mille Lacs Smallmouth Alliance, a nonprofit that formed last year to promote the lake’s trophy smallmouth bass fishery, and, among other things, push for regulations that would conserve the lake’s trophy smallmouth bass.

“What really makes Mille Lacs different is the true trophy fish,” DaRosa said.

DaRosa, a smallmouth bass guide on the lake during the open-water season, sees smallmouth bass as having the potential for making a major economic impact on the local economy, as it has the potential to become a national smallmouth destination.

“Already, half of my clients in July and August are from the South,” he said. “They want to cool off and catch quality smallmouth.”

The lake has made it onto several lists ranking the top smallmouth bass-fishing destinations, including one by Bassmaster Magazine, whose parent B.A.S.S. organization decided to bring its Angler of the Year tournament to the lake this fall, after the DNR made considerable rule changes, including allowing big-tournament anglers to cull smallmouth bass.

“We may never ever have a better shot at showcasing this lake’s trophy smallmouth fishery as we have now,” DaRosa said.

DaRosa said in some parts of the lake, he’s already noticed fewer trophy bass following the two liberal seasons, but he said there are still many spots that hold giants. But if the regulations aren’t changed soon, he said he expects the big, slow-growing fish to disappear.

Fishing guide Tony Roach, a board member of the nonprofit group, is also a member of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Group, which has been meeting regularly since last fall to make recommendations to the DNR.

At the group’s last meeting Feb. 24, Roach suggested the DNR go from a six-fish bag down to three fish, with a 15- to 21-inch protected slot; one fish over 21 inches would be allowed, with exceptions for tournaments. The bass harvest opener would coincide with statewide regulations. Along with the liberalized smallmouth regs on the lake in 2014, the DNR allowed harvest on Mille Lacs to start with the walleye opener earlier in May instead of protecting those fish through their typical spawning period.

“I have 10 pages of petitions signed by people who want to see the regs follow state guidelines when it comes to the season,” Roach said.

Roach is one of several big-name fishermen who have signed on with the Alliance, which is holding its annual fund-raiser at McQuoid’s Inn on April 23.

Another member of the group is Lance Johnson, of St. Francis, who said he makes about 20 visits a year to fish for smallmouths.

“If the trophy bass go away, I go away,” he said.

Johnson said he and the group are not completely opposed to some harvest of smaller fish.

“You have to harvest some fish because you can stunt out a species if it is flooded with small fish,” he said.

With northern pike, the idea of a 30- to 40-inch protected slot was discussed at the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Group meeting, and a three- or five-fish limit. This past winter, the limit on pike already had been pared reduced to five fish.

Roach and others at the meeting noted they’ve seen fewer and fewer trophy pike in the lake, though Roach said the lake is still a trophy fishery.

“It’s a real concern,” he said. “There are still a lot of big fish in there, though.”

Pereira, however, noted that pike tend to have rapid growth rates in Mille Lacs.

“If there is a concern, it is not likely long term,” he said. “Certainly a number of fish are going to get up past 30 inches. I don’t think we drove it into a hammer-handle situation. We just cleaned off the top of the fishery. We will fix that with the adjustment of the regulation, and hopefully we will see some big fish back in the system.”

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