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Fishing Regulations: The Mille Lacs Lake Smallmouth Case

Fishing Regulations: The Mille Lacs Lake Smallmouth Case

Walleye guide Tony Roach walked into a fish-cleaning station on the banks of Mille Lacs Lake this June and "was appalled" to see anglers lined up to clean buckets full of smallmouth bass.

"One guy was cleaning a 21.5 incher," Roach said. "Trying to be diplomatic, I suggested keeping a couple smallmouths is ok, but we should let the trophies go and limit the take. The guy cleaning the trophy said the DNR wants people to kill smallmouths to protect the walleyes."

Months earlier, Roach admitted he feared anglers were going to get the wrong message after attending the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) public meeting on the new regulations: This year, legal harvest of smallmouth bass was increased from one over 22 inches per angler to six bass in possession. The law now allows anglers to keep six bass under 17 inches, or five under 17 and one over 20 inches.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Rick Bruesewitz, Minnesota DNR area fisheries supervisor on the change in regulations: "We're managing Mille Lacs Lake primarily as a walleye fishery. Right now there's basically no bass harvest. So, even with a 6-fish limit, it won't decimate the population."

Unless it sounds like you're telling the public bass are the problem. Which, inadvertently or not, is precisely what the DNR did. Google the smallmouth regulation changes and the first message you find from the Minnesota DNR site is: "Regulations Changed to Boost Walleye Population." If there exists a universal sentiment among Minnesota's angling luminaries on the subject, it is that the quality regs for smallmouths were highly successful, creating a world-class trophy fishery. Yet the DNR would seemingly prefer those angling giants not quibble over the many degrees between "poor fishing" and "decimation" for the smallmouth population in their misguided effort to protect walleyes.

According to every biologist we contacted, there is no evidence to support the supposition that bass predate on walleye fry to any significant degree. "It appears the DNR has a lot of data on what's happening with the walleyes on Mille Lacs, but I've seen little if any data on the smallmouths," says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief, Doug Stange (who has always encouraged Selective Harvest). "Such a drastic change in regulations, without the tools in place to make a solid and resourceful decision, seems, on the face of it, quite strange. And disappointing.

"In-Fisherman has long been a proponent of basing these kinds of decisions on the best science available," Stange said. "This decision seems an abject about-face that could potentially destroy a world-class smallmouth population in favor of trying to bring back a walleye population in trouble. I'd like to see the walleye test-netting data revisited to be sure it's correct. And a six smallmouth limit? If they're guessing on the smallmouth side of things, and it appears they are, then why not one or two fish, instead of six? In the history of modern-day management, I don't think I've ever seen such a drastic change."

DNR Fisheries Chief Dirk Peterson admits, on the department's website, the harvest of both smallmouths and northern pike will be increased without any real data proving those species have anything to do with the walleye problem: "The smallmouth bass and northern pike regulations are designed to protect smaller walleye until we have better information on what these predator species are eating." Peterson adds that a "predator diet study" will follow.

According to the DNR, the walleye population is in trouble and they reduced walleye harvest from 4 to 2 in possession for 2013. But if walleye populations are in trouble, what was the role of past walleye management in exacerbating the problem? Did slot limits, allowing massive harvest of small walleyes for many years, play a role? If so, why continue down that road — reduced limits or not? Why not eliminate walleye harvest for a season and see if catch-and-release has the same impressive impact it had with smallmouths? Actually, the answer to that seems obvious: Harvest-oriented walleye anglers would rise in armed revolt, a prospect that intimidates the DNR.

Is there any wisdom at all in trying to protect one species by regulating another? "Pardon my French," says In-Fisherman Field Editor and retired Ontario fisheries biologist, Gord Pyzer, "but that's (expletive deleted) ridiculous. Having been in this game for well over 40 years now, if I've learned one thing it's that you do not solve a fishery problem with one species on the back of another species. It's dumb. It doesn't work. You usually end up with two mediocre fisheries instead of one."

Sorry for this late announcement to the world that should have been made by Minnesota Tourism, the Minnesota DNR, and the collective Chambers of Commerce around the lake, but — as Stange and almost everyone else involved points out — Mille Lacs is a world-class smallmouth fishery. In pounds per hectare of bass, and for numbers of fish over 20 inches per mile, the fishing rivals Lake Erie.


Have any fisheries agencies in the United States ever backtracked on successful quality regulations for smallmouths? "This certainly is the most dramatic reversal of quality regs for bass anywhere, to my knowledge," says In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn, a former fisheries biologist. "Lack of fulfillment of management goals has usually been based on other biological aspects overshadowing the effects of harvest or lack thereof, such as weather conditions, prey base, suitable spawning areas, recruitment, etc. Quality regs in the form of slot limits for bass also have been eliminated when they don't work, usually when anglers don't harvest enough small bass to boost growth rates."

In other words, Minnesota's DNR is trying a radical approach. Like Stange, Roach suggested getting a better handle on data collection. "They couldn't be more wrong about how many 17- to 20-inch walleyes are in the lake," he said. "Fishing has been off the charts for years. So many factors are involved. They were setting test nets in 2012 when the water reached its apex of clarity for the year. Maybe walleyes just weren't swimming into the nets. And they seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to every test-net result. We don't need to throw smallmouth bass under the bus because of a few surveys."

The Bronze Economy

"The walleye population on Mille Lacs is in disarray because of the regulations, or lack thereof," insists Tina Chapman, executive director of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council. "I own a resort on Mille Lacs. I had a lot of people there last week (June, 2013), and they kept a lot of smallmouth bass. It was sad to see. But it's the walleyes that keep us alive. Primarily, people come to Mille Lacs to catch walleyes."

As Roach and others pointed out, however, Minnesota never aggressively marketed Mille Lacs as one of the Seven Wonders of The Bass Fishing World (which it is). One very important reason agencies never backtrack on quality bass regulations is the economic factor — a factor never capitalized on in this case.

What benefits can world-class bass fisheries bring to communities when protected by quality regulations? Folks up in Ashland, Wisconsin know something about that. Little lake up there called Superior. Ashland sits on Chequamegon Bay, where 15 years ago the Wisconsin DNR decided to adopt restrictions on the harvest of smallmouth bass. The community went up in arms. Business owners flocked to public meetings, demanding the regulations would kill the flow of money into the town.

"It was a very, very hot topic," said Mary McPhetridge, then executive director of the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce. "About the only voice in favor was Roger LaPenter, owner of Angler's All. He was very vociferous about it, but I'm really glad he was. He said we needed those regs for our local fishing and it really paid off, though he took great personal risk that angry locals would stop coming to his shop."

Continued - click on page link below.

A Chamber survey in Ashland back then revealed over 90-percent of business owners were opposed to the new regs, which allow the harvest of only one smallmouth per day. That one smallmouth has to be 22 inches long — in the neighborhood of 7 pounds — precisely what Mille Lacs had until the season opener in May, 2013. Despite the intimidation of public outcry, the Wisconsin DNR bravely initiated the new regs anyway.

"Today, it's pretty unanimous throughout the business community that those new regs had a tremendously positive impact on our city," McPhetridge said. "Not only do the hotel owners benefit, but restaurants, gas stations, department stores — everybody feels those regulations created more and better commerce."

Better commerce? The opportunity to harvest fish brings people across one state line — people who sleep in campers perched on pickup trucks built two decades ago. They use rods they bought 3 decades ago and carry tiny boats on top of the camper. God love them and protect them, but the opportunity to catch a 6-pound smallmouth brings people from every state — people who can afford G. Loomis rods, Ranger boats, and nice hotels.

"People will travel and pay to fish for samllmouths," says famous guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "They come from all over. Where else do you have world-class smallies like the ones in Mille Lacs? Just a few places."

Quinn thinks the reason for the reversal of the protective regs on smallmouth bass might have to do with attracting more harvest-oriented bass anglers to the lake to balance the anticipated economic downturn when walleye anglers don't visit resorts or pay for guides. "They somehow believe bass have had a negative effect on young walleye abundance, resulting in the present unbalanced, though spectacular, population size structure," he said. "Of course, many other factors could be involved and may be intertwined: Large numbers of larger, cannibalistic walleyes; Indian netting of great numbers of smaller walleyes; Angler harvest of great numbers of smaller walleyes due to regulations since Indian netting began; Zebra mussels; Climate change; Forage fish declines and more."

Comments From Minnesota's Fishing Luminaries

Al Lindner: "Over the last 30-plus years I've watched the Mille Lacs smallmouth fishery blossom into one of the greatest smallmouth fisheries anywhere. To see this destroyed would be an absolute travesty."

Ron Lindner: "To take a world-class fishery that's been decades in the making and change it in the course of two or three years? It will never get back to what it was. Harvesting smallmouths and thinking it will cure a walleye problem is counterintuitive. If you wipe out every smallmouth in that lake, you're still going to have a walleye problem. The real problem with Mille Lacs walleyes? Nets."

Ted Takasaki: "I would hate to see regulations harm a world-class smallmouth fishery, and that's what we have in Mille Lacs. I have to believe the Minnesota DNR has some facts behind their decision. Is it wrong? It doesn't make sense to me. I agree we shouldn't be trying to solve walleye problems by involving other fish in the equation. I think 80% of our walleye anglers won't harvest smallmouths. I love smallmouths. I don't know what they're thinking. Why jump to a 6 fish limit? I'd rather see them go to a 2 or 3 fish limit first then gauge the results. Seems pretty drastic."

Ron Schara: "More voodoo fish management on Mille Lacs. I don't think there's any evidence that smallmouths are impacting walleye populations. That said, I don't mind some bass harvest, although I doubt if many anglers really want to keep them for food value when fishing on a walleye lake. I would have set bass harvest slots at under 15 inches to satisfy anybody who wants to keep smallies. Frankly, the walleye collapse is the DNR's own doing, combined with the aggressive spring netting by the (Ojibwe) Bands, if you want my thoughts. By the way, Dick Sternberg predicted the walleye population decline more than 12 years ago based on the DNR's fishing regs which placed excessive harvest pressure on walleyes under 17 inches and excessively protected larger fish. Perch are also collapsing as a result. A fine mess we're in."

Dick Sternberg: "Studies on Mille Lacs show that when perch counts are low, walleyes feed on walleyes. As fingerlings, walleyes were massively abundant after some huge year classes and the next year they were gone. They've got to do something. You can't have massive populations of everything in a lake. Now the perch count is way down, and we're seeing skinny walleyes again, so forage counts are in question. In general, I think they're on the right track but I wonder about the numbers. Why 6 bass?"

Tony Roach: "I was shocked and appalled at the 6-fish limit. I'm afraid the message anglers are going to hear from the DNR is: 'We want you to keep more bass.' This is a drastic measure — jumping from 1 fish over 22 inches to 6 fish per day. All the (walleye) guides I talk to around Mille Lacs are asking, why not go to a 2-fish limit, or even a 3-fish limit? Why 6? I think they're waging war on bass, for whatever reason. I think walleyes are eating walleyes, not the bass. I hope this doesn't open the floodgates on people keeping bass. I want to make it clear that I'm not keeping any bass. Nobody's keeping bass on my boat. After it's taken this long to build up a world-class fishery, this is frustrating. I like the direction of protecting walleyes (reducing the limit by 50%), but what do the bass have to do with it?"

Chip Leer: "I'm confused. I don't see the link between the walleye population and the smallmouths. The way I understood the law change was that the DNR wants to increase harvest of the smallmouths to protect the walleyes. Then why did we set the catch-and-release standard to begin with? The qualtiy regs seemed to be working. Now they change the law for smallmouth to resemble a species of 'table fare.' Leaves me confused about what DNR goals are for the lake and the bass."

Brian "Bro" Brosdahl: "Too bad that there they are going after the smallies because Mille Lacs is becoming a well known Small mouth Bass fishery. I hear about this out of state at talks and different shops around the country. People know about Mille Lacs smallmouths and they never mention the walleyes. The DNR should study barotrauma because the few times I'm there (in summer), everybody is fishing deep off the edges of the flats and in between with leadcore or rigging. I doubt they have a very good survival rate for walleyes out there. It's hard to stop anglers from fishing deep when that's where the fish are, but they should allow anglers to keep the first two walleyes they catch, no matter what size they are, with no culling until the fishery straightens out. And educate the public on the hazards of deep water fishing instead of making radical changes."

Obviously this is a highly complex issue. But boil it down. Some days on Mille Lacs you can start catching smallies in 4 feet of water, keep sliding deeper until you're out to 15 feet on a very gradual slope, and continue catching fish on every cast until darkness drives you off the water. A healthy portion of those fish will be in excess of 20 inches.

Mille Lacs easily rates among the best of those spots. What's a fishery like that worth to a region? Or a state? Or a nation?

It will remain great. For a while. But don't wait too long. (And be certain to tell the resort owner why you're there.)

Save Mille Lacs "Do the math: 6 fish X 25 anglers X 20 launches X 3 trips = potential harvest of 9000 fish per day."

Dirk Peterson, MN DNR: "We want Mille Lacs to continue to be a world-class walleye-fishing destination."

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