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Mille Lacs Lake: Committee says regulations for winter fishing needed ASAP

GARRISON--While walleye is still king of discussion at the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, there was increased discussion on the importance of bass fishing for the area economy during the regular meeting Thursday night.

Seth Feider holds his smallmouth bass that helped him become the weight leader at the Bassmaster fishing tournament on Mille Lacs Lake in September. Submited photo
Seth Feider holds his smallmouth bass that helped him become the weight leader at the Bassmaster fishing tournament on Mille Lacs Lake in September. Submited photo
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GARRISON-While walleye is still king of discussion at the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, there was increased discussion on the importance of bass fishing for the area economy during the regular meeting Thursday night.

The MLFAC committee also shared its concern about hearing what winter fishing regulations on the lake will be as soon as possible.

All committee members had a chance to share thoughts about the recent successful Bassmaster Tournament, and while most agreed the tournament will have a positive impact for the surrounding businesses, there was growing concern about the smallmouth bass now seeing the brunt of the fishing pressure.

That added fishing pressure had some looking to start adjusting regulations to conserve what is now being considered a world-class bass fishery.

Brad Parsons, central region fisheries manager with the Minnesota DNR, said the tournament not only provided positive exposure for the great angling opportunities, but it also provided the DNR with valuable information on the size and variety of fish being caught.

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"In general the hooking mortality was really low and we were able to get estimated weight and length of the fish caught," Parsons said. "We need more information on bass in this lake."

They were able to get details on about 750 fish caught during the tournament, Parsons said.

"I knew the catch rates would be high and I knew the overall size rate would be good, but I was surprised," committee member Tony Roach said.

Roach, a fishing guide, said while he is pleased to have an increase in bass business, including 30 bass fishing trips scheduled in the spring, he is concerned about the uptick in bass anglers.

"I'm worried about a lot of our trophy fish being eaten," Roach said.

He and other committee members shared an example of Falcon Lake in Texas. They said that lake was largely unknown, then after a very successful tournament, the lake was largely depleted of quality bass within two years because of fishing pressure.

"With this amount of anglers, even if they are not being kept, the hook mortality rate is gong to increase," Roach said.

He also noted businesses need to get on the band wagon and advertise their business to the bass anglers.

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Others agreed they look forward to that increase in business. But some wanted to keep the focus on the walleye.

"It won't even come close to replacing what we've lost," committee member Bill Eno said. "We just don't see (bass anglers). We have lost all of our walleye people."

His comment received "amens" from some in the crowd.

Eno and MLFAC committee member Tom Neustrom wished to keep the focus on walleye, the reason the committee was formed.

Though some didn't wish to talk about bass, others wanted to make sure bass regulations were in discussion right along side the walleye regulations to avoid losing another quality fish in the lake.

Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief, encouraged the committee to be thinking about what regulations they would want to see for bass.

Committee member Dean Hanson of Agate Bay Resort, Isle, commented he was not ready to talk regulations for bass until there is evidence of a problem. But he suggested they not only focus on walleye, but the overall health of the lake.

Committee member Steve Kulifaj said it was good to see good news coming from the lake "instead of all the doom and gloom."

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Members said the tournament brought in about 17,000 people over four days to the area, largely around Grand Casino Mille Lacs, headquarters of the tournament.

"Millions of people are going to see this," committee member Peter Perovich said. He hoped to see regulations on bass, including catch and release as well as fewer small tournaments and more large tournaments. The reasoning was the larger tournaments bring people that stay for several days, spending money at Mille Lacs area businesses. He suggested the smaller tournaments were only bringing in anglers for a day, not helping fill resort beds.

Parsons noted the DNR is looking into the effect of tournaments on the fishing.

Walleye winter regulations

Following discussion on bass, was a focus on what can be expected for winter fishing regulations. The businesses represented made it clear over and over they needed to know regulations months, preferably years, in advance to know what to tell customers looking to visit the lake. The idea they would not know whether the lake would be open to fishing until weeks before freeze-up had many deeply concerned.

Pereira was hopeful that shortly after a Nov. 1 meeting, the DNR could release what the winter regulations may look like. Committee members repeated they want to see and share input about the proposal before a press release is issued to avoid a potential surprise.

"We are just going to go as fast as we can," Pereira said about getting answers on winter regulations. In order to do that, he said the department is crunching the numbers as quick as they can. He said he would return to St. Paul and again share the urgency of the situation.

The group repeatedly shared the desire for no closure.

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