It could very likely mark the return of Mille Lacs Lake.
And it has nothing to do with walleyes or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources or any of the other players involved with the once-grand walleye fishery.
But while Mille Lacs’ decline has been a good decade in the making, the turnaround could ultimately come over a matter of days.
By the end of the weekend, we’ll know: Can bass really make us forget about walleyes on what for years was regarded as the premier walleye fishery in the state, and one of the best in the country, maybe even the world?
If Mille Lacs lives up to the hype, the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship could have that effect.
In recent years, we’ve heard that Mille Lacs is among the best smallmouth lakes in the nation — a Bassmaster Magazine panel of experts ranked the central Minnesota lake No. 6 on the list of the 100 best bass lakes in the country for 2016. And the Bassmaster AOY competition, scheduled Thursday through Sunday, will go a long way toward telling us if Mille Lacs is indeed for real. Prior to the tournament, those in the know were expecting big things from the lake in its first foray into big-time competitive bass fishing.
“I believe the fish will be feeding heavily in preparation for winter, so we could see some of the largest smallmouth of the year,” pro angler Josh Douglas said in a story at www.bassmasters.com. “There will be numerous (five-fish) limits near, if not exceeding, 25 pounds.”
As the top 50 bass anglers in the world (as recognized by Bassmaster) set their sights on Mille Lacs and a $1 million purse, an announcement out of northeastern Minnesota seems to, at the same time, further push Mille Lacs from the state’s walleye-fishing consciousness.
According to the Minnesota DNR, Lake Vermilion’s thriving walleye population is causing the agency to consider a walleye regulation change starting in 2017. As a result, the DNR will host an open public meeting about the proposed regulation change (6-8 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Tower Civic Center).
“We are in a good situation, with abundant walleye and lots of large female walleye to produce future year classes,” Edie Evarts, Tower area fisheries supervisor, said in a DNR release announcing the possible change in regs. “It is nice to offer a regulation change because the population is healthy. At the same time, we want to protect the overall abundance and still offer opportunities to catch and release large fish.”
Under current regulations, anglers must release all walleye 18 to 26 inches and are allowed to keep one walleye longer than 26 inches on Vermilion. According to the DNR, the four-fish bag limit would continue, with a possible change in the slot. Possibilities include releasing all walleyes 18 to 22 inches, releasing walleyes 20 to 26 inches or allowing anglers to keep one walleye longer than 18 inches in that limit of four.
Although not nearly as big as the massive 132,500-acre Mille Lacs fishery, Vermilion covers nearly 40,000 acres. And, interestingly, Vermilion has east and west basins that are substantially different — west-end walleye supposedly grow faster, resulting in a larger proportion of fish growing into that protected range, the DNR said.
So, in the last 10 years, as the Mille Lacs walleye situation has worsened, lakes such as Leech and Upper Red have successfully retooled and gone from famine to feast on the walleye front. And while Vermilion hasn’t had to endure such a scenario — the lake has had fairly strong walleye numbers for quite a few years — its success, too, is yet another reminder of Mille Lacs’ walleye failures.
Yes, even if Mille Lacs were to come back, regaining its place as king of Minnesota walleye fisheries would be unlikely; reports were good there this summer, but it was all catch-and-release, and even that season was called earlier this summer. So maybe it’s time to stop concentrating on walleyes and instead turn to bass in hopes of finally getting Mille Lacs back on track as a big-time fishery.
Yup, there’s more at stake than a million bucks at the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs.
A lot more.