ISLE, Minn. — Mike Verdeja whips his Shadow Rap crankbait to the edge of a submerged rock pile on Mille Lacs Lake. Another smallmouth bass slams it.
“Little guy,” says Verdeja, a Mille Lacs fishing guide.
He cranks the fish in and gives it a good look. A plump 15-incher. It may not be long by bass standards, but it’s thick, like most Mille Lacs smallies.
“They’re definitely healthy,” says Verdeja, 33, who’s been guiding on Mille Lacs for seven years.
He lowers the bass to the water and watches it dart back to the rocks.
Verdeja can take you to Mille Lacs Lake walleyes, too, but about 60 percent of his guiding is for smallmouth. More anglers are turning to smallmouth, muskies and other species as restrictions tighten on Mille Lacs Lake walleyes. This year, all walleyes must be returned to the water in an effort to keep anglers from reaching the lake’s harvest quota. Last year, that happened in early August, and walleye fishing was shut down for the remainder of the season to protect the struggling walleye population.
Verdeja is happy to take anglers to bass on a lake known as a trophy smallmouth fishery. There are plenty of them and lots of big ones.
“Most folks who come to Mille Lacs are getting their personal best,” Verdeja says. “Even on a slower day, it can be good because you can get some really special fish.”
Verdeja’s largest was a May fish that measured 22½ inches and weighed 7½ pounds.
“It was a monster,” he says.
Two days before our trip on May 20, he had taken a 21-incher that weighed more than 6 pounds.
“They grow slowly, but they grow big,” Verdeja says. “Mille Lacs has an abundance of crayfish, and that’s all they eat. They’re tearing up the crayfish. They’re not longer, but they get heavier. They grow in every direction. They grow tall. They grow wide side to side.”
Mille Lacs discovered
On this May morning, Verdeja is fishing with old friend Mickey Chandler, who works for fishing conglomerate Pure Fishing from his home near St. Cloud. The two are throwing crankbaits, jerkbaits and tube jigs, working the edges of rock piles from Verdeja’s 20-foot Yar-Craft.
Early on, the fish play hard to get, but Verdeja isn’t concerned.
“Every day at some point, they turn on,” he says.
We bounce from one rock pile or old dock piling or shoreline break to another, picking up a couple of bass here, a couple there.
The bass fishing here is hardly a secret despite being historically overshadowed by the lake’s walleye fishing. Bassmaster magazine has put Mille Lacs in its top five smallmouth waters. Wired2fish editors have ranked Mille Lacs as their No. 4 smallmouth lake in the country.
“The lake has had very good smallmouth bass fishing for probably 30 years,” Verdeja says. “Now it’s being exploited because it’s becoming more popular with smallmouth fishermen and because the walleyes are down some.”
At the urging of many bass anglers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has changed regulations to protect Mille Lacs’ bass. Largemouth and smallmouth season on Mille Lacs opens with the walleye opener, and anglers are required to release all bass they catch during the first two weeks of the season. After those first two weeks, the combined possession limit of smallmouth and largemouth is four, with only one over 21 inches. All bass from 17 to 21 inches must be immediately released.
The DNR waives those size and possession restrictions for bass during a limited number of bass tournaments each year. That helped the Mille Lacs area attract the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Sept. 15-18 this year.
The water on Mille Lacs is exceptionally clear, and in some places, we can see bass cruising the rocks beneath us.
“Look at all the fish! Look at all the fish!” Verdeja exclaims, staring down into the water from the bow at one point.
Verdeja is an animated, affable guy. It’s hard to imagine anybody being happier on the job than he is. He has an arsenal of rods, rigged and ready, along one side of the boat. He throws a jerkbait for a while, and if it’s not producing, retires it for a time. He picks up a rod with a watermelon-flake tube jig on it — “my Mille Lacs go-to bait” — and tosses it for several casts. Then he might switch to a minnow imitation.
Seeking better waters
We’re picking up some decent bass, but Verdeja has an idea. We run 15 minutes up the lake to an undulating jumble of rocks he knows, a series of submerged humps about 9 feet deep. We go to “draggin’,” essentially trolling with tubes or crankbaits or Verdeja’s tiny black marabou jig.
Immediately, Verdeja latches onto something big that stays deep. A 25-inch walleye on the black marabou. Then a 22-inch walleye. Then a 17-inch smallie and three more in quick succession.
Six minutes after that flurry, Chandler sets the hook on another.
“Feels like a bigger fish,” he says.
It has taken his Berkley Cutter, a perch imitation crankbait.
Yes, it’s bigger. It’s a 20½-inch football of a bass. Watching it come to the boat through the emerald water, making its powerful runs, explains everything anyone would need to know about the appeal of smallmouth fishing. Every feature of the fish is big — jaws, shoulders, flanks, dorsal fin, tail.
After a few photos, Chandler releases the bass. He examines his crankbait.
“I love it when your baits start to get some teeth marks on ’em,” he says.
To learn more
Mike Verdeja guides for Mille Lacs Lake smallmouth bass and walleyes from McQuoid’s Inn at Isle, Minn. To contact Verdeja about guiding, call McQuoid’s Inn at (800) 862-3535 or (320) 676-3535.