“The best day of fishing I’ve ever had on this lake,” is what Andrew Tuthill said to me as we bobbed on Mille Lacs Lake in early June. “And I’ve fished this lake my whole life.”
That wasn’t the only positive fishing report I’d heard about the central Minnesota lake this year. In fact, lots of anglers were reporting success and it wasn’t just one year class that was showing up — it was multiple year classes.
We decided to see for ourselves and called Terry Thurmer from Terry’s Boat Harbor to see if we could join him on a launch. We were working on a story for Northland Outdoors TV and wanted to get the good fishing on film. We also talked to the DNR, resort owners, bait shop owners, guides, and stopped out to see a Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee in our quest to solve “The Mille Lacs Mystery.”
It was at the committee that I heard from one segment of the population that doesn’t get heard from much: Mille Lacs property owners. Most of them moved there to live where walleye fishing reigned. They probably overpaid, too. Now, their property values are dropping and even if they wanted to move to a different walleye lake, selling isn’t an option for most of them.
On the latest episode of Northland Outdoors Television, (Saturday mornings at 7 AM on Fox Sports North), we searched for answers. What happened to the walleye population? What is being done about it? What does the future hold?
And why is fishing so darn good this year?
During the time we spent filming for the TV show, we tried to talk to every stakeholder involved. (The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe declined our requests for interviews, but the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission offered their perspective at the Committee meeting). It was clear that everyone involved seems to be concerned and working for a solution that is amicable for all parties.
You can see more reaction — the very emotional reaction — by watching the show.
But for this story, let’s get back to the fishing.
Terry runs his launch service in three shifts throughout the day, 8 a.m.-noon, 1 p.m.-5 p.m., and 6 p.m.-10 p.m. I climbed aboard for the afternoon and evening shifts, excited for my first fishing trip on the legendary lake.
It didn’t disappoint.
The weather was warm and sunny — not ideal conditions for walleye fishing, particularly in this clear-watered lake. We did pick off the occasional walleye though, so Mille Lacs still performed for us, even kicking out a healthy 26″ fish caught by Abbie Blashack of Faribault, Minn.
We took a break between the afternoon and evening to stretch our legs and get a new crew of anglers. As we headed out, we learned our new group was filled with science teachers from Crosby, Minn., including Tuthill, Terry Forsberg, Bob Kuschel, Mike Gindorff and Dan LeGrande (from Lincoln, Neb.). Since the walleyes were suffering from a case of lockjaw, we headed for the rocks in search of smallmouth. It wasn’t long before the brown bass were jumping in the boat from all sides, including a few stout specimens that neared the 20-inch mark. We had just missed the famous spawning time when the fish resemble chunky footballs, but nonetheless, we had fun doing battle. In reality, we were killing time, waiting for the king of the lake to get hungry.
As the sun neared the horizon, we motored back out to the mud flats and began dropping leeches and slip bobbers. It didn’t take long before one of the bobbers went down and the first walleye of the evening was caught.
With the 10 p.m. curfew approaching, we hoped we could set the hook into a few before having to call it a day.
It was the last fifteen minutes of the night and our captain, Bill Thurmer, was giving us the countdown to the end. That’s when things got interesting.
As the lights came on the side of the launch, the fish seemed to turn on as well. Bobbers started going down on each side of the boat. 12-inch fish, 16-inch fish, and 18-inch fish were being netted. Doubles and triples were happening. We were trying to get them all on camera. In fact right at the end, I caught a double with one of the anglers next to me and while we were talking on film about it, I watched a hook set over the shoulder of my cameraman.
As that fish got closer, people stopped paying attention to our filming process and started looking at the net as a thick 28.5-inch walleye was scooped up. The boat erupted in cheers and high-fives. It was the perfect way to end the day.
Our question was answered. The walleye fishing on Mille Lacs was better than expected. All of them went back into the lake, and for us, that was just fine. We enjoyed the fishing and do enough of it that we can find some for the frying pan on other bodies of water. Or we could have targeted a few small northern pike to slice and dice – they’re pretty tasty in their own right.
Do I understand why people don’t want to take time out of their busy schedule, burn vacation days and travel to a lake where they can’t keep walleyes? Absolutely. But, if you like to catch walleyes and eat fish, there is no question the first lake I would recommend in central Minnesota is Mille Lacs, without hesitation. I like to eat fish as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t always have to be walleye. We don’t want to overharvest bass, big pike (or any species for that matter) so I’m not suggesting keeping limits of other fish, just enough to eat. Which is the way it should be anywhere you go.
I will also suggest stopping in and using the businesses around the lake, particularly if you’ve done it when you fished there before. These guys were there for you in the good times and they need you to be there for them in the bad times.
Besides, the fishing this year on Mille Lacs is good. Go see for yourself.