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AIMing for Mille Lacs

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There might not be a fishery more suited for the Anglers Insight Marketing (AIM) Pro Walleye Series than Lake Mille Lacs.

First, the stringent protected slot limit of 17 to 28 inches makes tournament fishing a crapshoot on the lake. And so many of the walleyes being caught on Mille Lacs are in the mid-20-inch range these days; its loaded with fish toward the top end of the slot.

In other words, pro anglers who catch the right fish, not necessarily the biggest fish, mostly would find success in a Mille Lacs walleye tournament.

And then there’s the harvest allotted for non-tribal members on Mille Lacs. In a three-day pro walleye tournament, anglers could harvest hundreds if not thousands of pounds of “keeper” walleyes. That’s only a fraction of the total allotment for non-tribal members on the lake, but in a year in which that number is shrinking fast, that could be an issue.

But where are you going to find a tournament that can somehow skirt the slot, keep the fish in the lake and still bring the biggest names in walleye fishing to a community that could use the windfall of dollars such a happening could bring?

Consider AIM and its unique “catch-record-release” format. According to Joe Baron, AIM Pro Walleye Series president and CEO, the circuit is considering adding Mille Lacs to its schedule for 2013.

“We just started talks with some of the people in the community, but I think they want us there,” Baron said. “I really think the community would support it.”

Baron didn’t specify a community, so it’s uncertain if, say, that would be Garrison, one of the more prominent communities on the lake. Instead, Baron said most of the conversation has been with resort owners.

Baron had just returned from an AIM tournament at Lake of the Woods, which was based in the heart of the major cluster of resorts about 12 miles north of Baudette. But because of the format, it was possible to have weigh-ins in Baudette and include that community, too. The first WalleyeFest, a community celebration surrounding the tournament, ensured that as well.

“The attractive thing about Mille Lacs is we could showcase that fishery,” Baron said. “One of the reasons the format shines on lakes that have slot limits is the angler who catches the most amount of big fish is the angler that’s going to win. If you’re on a slot lake, you can’t keep those slot fish. So the angler who catches the right fish wins. There’s a huge element of luck.”

Even daily limits on lakes don’t apply in AIM tournaments. Anglers measure and take digital photos of their catch — the seven longest are recorded each day and lengths are converted to pounds using an AIM conversion table — before releasing the fish. The digital images are shown on stage at the weigh-ins and the event is streamed online. So no worries about slot and bag limits, culling or trying to keep fish alive in live wells.

The pros at the Lake of the Woods tournament lauded the format and the series; it appears to have a strong following. And with the greater Brainerd area home to numerous pro anglers — Brainerd’s Perry Good finished 25th at Lake of the Woods — and the metro about two hours from Mille Lacs, a tournament on what is regarded by many as the top walleye fishery in the state could be hugely successful, Baron said.

“What plays into the equation is that a lot of team anglers and a lot of tournament fishermen are in that area,” he said. “Going into an area like Mille Lacs, you’re able to expose the format to another group of new anglers that wouldn’t have to come so far to fish one of our events. There would be a high participation level there.”

AIM, which completed its fifth year with the Lake of the Woods tourney, has also considered adding Leech Lake to its schedule.

“There’s no doubt AIM should be able to get both tournaments, but my guess is we’ll do one or the other for 2013. ... The anglers seem to prefer Mille Lacs,” Baron said. “We’re not ruling it out (adding Leech, too). But being there’s already one tournament in Minnesota (Lake of the Woods), I don’t foresee doing three in Minnesota.”