Mike Jones - KEEPING UP

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Friday, June 22, 2018
Simply Zen
Friday, July 06, 2018
Mr. T

A Cautionary Tale
When you don’t have a dog in the fight, it’s easier to see things with an open mind. It’s especially helpful when you’re a stranger in a strange town and have to learn the local history. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in that very situation on a fishing trip to Minnesota.

In this proverbial Land of a Thousand Lakes, one of the biggest blue dots on the map is the 207 square miles of Lake Mille Lacs, about 100 miles north of Minneapolis. For most of my angling career, I never gave this place a second, or even a third thought. To a West Coaster, this was the capital of Midwest walleye, the pursuit of which held even less appeal for me than did tilapia fishing in the New River just north of Mexicali. However, cultural bias aside, I did appreciate the fact that for a different segment of the American fishing public, here was a storied fishery.

What I failed to appreciate were the other species swimming in the land of sky blue waters. It was not until the Bassmaster pros turned their attentions to Mille Lacs a few years ago, did I – or much of the bass fishing world – understand what was living among a plethora of rock piles, ridges and reefs. These were not merely husky, well-fed smallmouth. No, these were husky, well-fed ginormous bronzebacks lying shoulder-to-shoulder in a lake where most anglers considered them an incidental catch. Of course, there was a group of bass fishermen, a small cadre, who were well aware of what they had. And, bless their hearts, they were able to keep it quiet.

Where the plot thickened was in the crisscrossing of fates. Just as the smallmouth seemed to be rocketing to prominence, the walleye fishery was going the other way. So much so that three years ago a catch-and-release policy was implemented for walleye during the summer open-water season, combined with a night fishing closure from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Needless to say, howls of protest erupted from both walleye fishermen and the resort operators who catered to them.

Predictably, the finger-pointing soon began and, not surprisingly, many of those accusing digits were directed towards the smallmouth. Although this contention quickly lost traction in light of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) study that showed crayfish, not juvenile walleye, to be the predominant forage item of Mille Lacs bass, those with vested interests were not — and are still not — willing to believe much of what the DNR is saying.

In full transparency, I have to admit that over decades of dealing with western issues and government agencies, I too learned to be distrustful. While there are many dedicated biologists who are decent and truthful, the sad reality is that these hardworking men and women are often not the ones making the final decisions. Remember when the Lake Mead brain trust told us that stripers posed no threat to bass populations because: (a) stripers could not reproduce without moving water and (b) they did not actively prey on bass due to their preference for open water? If we had been spared the dire consequences of such utter lunacy, one might be able to laugh forty years later.

Even so, you cannot ignore certain facts. And, here is where being a visitor comes in handy. First, in every conversation with a Minnesota local, no one mentioned or even pondered what impact — if any — invasive species such as zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil has had on the walleye populations. Even if it’s minimal, their presence has forever changed the lake dynamics.

More telling was the local penchant for ignoring what may be the real gorilla in the room — overharvesting. For a very long time, the Mille Lacs walleye have been relentlessly pounded by generations of fishermen who view a cooler full of fish more as a birthright than a privilege. Moreover, tourists have come to expect a crate of filets for shipment home. Launch boat operators who, for over 70 years, have sent barges out nearly around the clock (including night trips that are especially productive) filled with 25 to 50 people who need nothing more than a license to get their fill, seem mystified by a downturn in the catch rates. At least one launch operator has called the DNR numbers nothing more than “guesstimates” and that anglers should be able to keep four fish of any size. Other local resort owners simply offered this rationalization: “It’s what we’ve always done.”

Lost in the discussion is how rare it is to have one fishery experience problems just as another fishery steps in to pick up the slack. When does that ever happen? Granted, bass fishermen will not fill those seats on the cattle boats, but they did fill just about every available parking space over Memorial Day weekend with one fully-rigged, top-line tournament bass boat after the next.

Right now, the Mille Lac smallmouth are booming. In a week of fishing, it was rare to catch a fish less than 3 pounds. In fact, most fell nicely into an astounding 3½- to 6-pound window, which makes you wonder about the health of future year classes. And heaven help the bass fishery if launch boat operators turn their attentions towards the smallmouth and figure out how to vacuum clean the main lake reefs.

So, why should you care about Mille Lacs? In the current parental jargon, it offers what is called a “teachable moment” — specifically, one about the story of Mille Lacs and how economics, greed, shortsighted self-interest, politics and pure ignorance can affect our judgment as fishermen. It happens everywhere and to everyone. We’ve lived through such things and continue to live through them in the West. In a region where water is scarce and fishing pressure is not, it seems only reasonable for those of us who care about what comes next to always have a dog in this fight.

A BEEFY Mille Lacs smallmouth bass. This fishery is thriving while walleye are in decline, causing much argument.


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