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Mille Lacs Lake bass population TBD

WEALTHWOOD--Thursday was a slow day for bass fishing on Mille Lacs Lake for three fisheries staff members with the Minnesota DNR. Luckily they weren't looking to take any home.

Aitkin fisheries technician Kris Nissen holds a recently tagged smallmouth bass in a holding tank Thursday on Mille Lacs Lake. Michael Johnson/Brainerd Dispatch - Video
Aitkin fisheries technician Kris Nissen holds a recently tagged smallmouth bass in a holding tank Thursday on Mille Lacs Lake. Michael Johnson/Brainerd Dispatch - Video

WEALTHWOOD-Thursday was a slow day for bass fishing on Mille Lacs Lake for three fisheries staff members with the Minnesota DNR. Luckily they weren't looking to take any home.

Just a handful of bass were scooped in about 20 minutes, mainly from shores and docks on the north end of the lake. The cool and cloudy day with water temperatures around 54 degrees made for a poor showing. Kris Nissen, Aitkin fisheries technician, said their best day since starting electrofishing for bass included boating over 100 in a short period. A good day for anybody.

Bass numbers are increasing in Minnesota and the number of anglers focusing on them seems to be growing too.

In an effort to find out the population of smallmouth bass in one of Minnesota's largest lakes, the Minnesota DNR started capturing and tagging smallmouth bass from Mille Lacs Lake last week. Mille Lacs Lake has received extra coverage nationwide after being named one of the top 10 best bass lakes in the nation by Bassmaster Magazine (No. 6) and after some of the largest smallmouth bass of the year were caught during the Bassmaster Classic Angler of the Year tournament last September. With added focus and pressure on this fishery, the state is looking to get an estimate of the lake's bass population.

"Clearly smallmouth bass have been increasing in abundance out there, and honestly that's a regional trend, it's not just in Mille Lacs," Parsons said. "Bass are increasing throughout Minnesota, both largemouth and smallmouth."

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That probably has to do with longer growing seasons, according to Brad Parsons, Central Region Fisheries Manager with the Minnesota DNR. With numbers seeming to be rising, anglers adding pressure and the fishery considered world-class, it seems like a good time to get to know the population better.

How this study works begins with the initial capture. This is being done using electrofishing, pulsing electricity through the waves, which causes the fish to swim toward the boat.

An electrofishing boat uses a generator to produce electricity. The electricity travels to the poles, called booms, at the front of the boat and into the water. The electric field does not kill fish but temporarily stuns or impairs those that swim within a 6- to 8-foot radius from the booms, according to the Freshwater Fisheries Conservation Commission.

The fish are then scooped from the water with nets and placed in a holding tank before being measured and tagged. According to the DNR most of the fish caught by electrofishing recover rapidly and are promptly returned to the water after the necessary biological data is recorded. The Minnesota DNR hopes to capture and tag 2,000 bass during this period.

With those bass returned to the waters, the data is put into the system for the record. Much of the work then relies on anglers to catch and report tagged fish. This takes significant effort on all parts to get an accurate number.

Anglers asked to report tagged fish

"Angling can be a very effective method of recapture," Parsons said.

"In theory the math is pretty simple," Parsons added. "Obviously it doesn't always work out that way because the fish have to mix and you have to meet all these assumptions. But we're really looking forward to this. It's going to tell us an awful lot about the smallmouth bass population out there."

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The DNR will call on anglers to report all tagged fish and they ask anglers to leave the tag in the fish as they want to know how many times fish are caught. Visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/fisheries/tagged_fish_reporting/step1.html to report where the fish was caught.

Parsons said the DNR will also be working with a number of the bass tournaments this year to get counts from those anglers, who tend to catch a lot of bass over a two- or three-day period.

The DNR is not asking anglers to release tagged fish if they wish to take them home for a meal, they just ask anglers to follow the regulations. If anglers take the time to report the tagged fish it will only help gain a better understanding of the fish numbers and their behaviors.

What's unique about this study is the large size of Mille Lacs-128,226 acres and about 93 miles of shoreline-makes it very difficult to get a firm estimate, Parsons said. In order to have an effective population assessment, all class sizes need to be caught, he added. One of the last assessments on the bass population on Mille Lacs appeared to only recapture one year class, not effectively showing what was under the surface.

So far DNR staff were catching a wide variety of sizes from up to 21 inches to some just about 8-inches long. While most were smallmouth, some largemouth made it into the mix.

"There's multiple year classes being caught," Eric Jensen, large lake specialist with the Minnesota DNR. "The numbers have been good."

On Thursday they had about 700 bass tagged, with a goal of up to 2,000. They'll continue fishing for another couple weeks to try to reach that goal. They were hopeful water temperatures would increase, helping to bring bass shallow to setup spawning sites.

Parsons has no estimate of what the bass population may actually be. What he does know is the fishing is good for those targeting the species.

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"I couldn't tell you what the population estimate will be," Parsons said. "We expect the number to be a lot. But what a lot means I won't know until we are done. "

Parsons hopes they could get a population estimate together around the first of the year.

"We really need to know more about those fish out there and not just because they are more popular, but for a lot of reasons," Parsons said.

Those looking to find some tagged fish can do so as the catch-and-release season has begun, with the official bass season opening May 27, including a Minnesota Governor's Bass Fishing Opener set that day on Mille Lacs.

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