The biggest news in fishing this week comes from Lake Mille Lacs, where anglers and area business owners nearly held Minnesota's governor hostage as a means of voicing their concern over a temporary closure on walleye fishing. As reported throughout the national news, frustrated locals surrounded a boat occupied by the governor during an outing intended to promote the lake’s bass fishery, requiring the state’s leader to call it a day and head for shore.
I reviewed reports on the incident and was utterly shocked to hear of such anarchy within our angling community. First off, a person or group would have to be deranged to hostilely approach or restrict an elected official in this day and age. Those in the boats were lucky things didn’t progress further than they did.
But perhaps equally shocking were the apparent motives and reactions of the locals to their scenario.
To back up a bit, Lake Mille Lacs has always been one of the country’s premier walleye fisheries, supporting a large local economy and tourism trade. Dozens of fishing lodges and bait stores exist around the lake, and nearly all hinge their summer business around the walleye bite.
However, for some time – possibly as long as 30 years – the walleye population in Mille Lacs has declined. Managers were slow to recognize the issue, or possibly afraid to, and held to liberal harvest limits. In addition, a tense regulatory relationship with Native Americans via archaic treaties made things sticky and put more pressure on the fish.
Walleyes aren’t reproducing well, and those that are have been found to eat their own offspring. Additional predator fish, most notably Northern pike, are consuming fingerlings as well. To put it in realistic terms, according to management officials, the walleye population of Mille Lacs has crashed. Regulations, like mandatory catch and release throughout the rest of the year, are now in place to restore the fishing.
Locals feel such regs are enough and that full closures on the walleye fishery are overkill. Feeling the pain of another lackluster summer, they took matters into their own hands, forcing the governor to get over his bass bug and dance with the date that brought him. Walleyes pay the bills, Jack!
In fact, as reported by the area’s Fox 9 News, one area lodge owner stated: “This bass fishing is all about people with their beautiful ranger (sic) boats. They come up and they put nothing in our economy.” (I’ll purposely leave the disheveled man’s name out, as I’m sure he’s not interested in attention from BassFans.)
In any case, while I can sympathize with the Mille Lacs walleye crowd, I’d offer a few words of caution. First off, the DNR doesn’t really care what citizens think is best in terms of managing fish. Citizens don’t go to college for fisheries science; they don’t spend years in the field doing research. And citizens certainly don’t understand the changing dynamic of managing a wildlife resource for numerous groups of people. The Minnesota DNR is made up of trained professionals and, contrary to belief, they are not only interested in maintaining high numbers of fish, they’re equally interested in people fishing for them, and spending money to do so.
Secondly, the rise in popularity of the area’s bass fishing is the single greatest thing that could have happened for the fishing economy of Lake Mille Lacs. Many of you have recognized my slight displeasure with the accepted rating criteria now used by Bassmaster Magazine to categorize our fisheries. However, that’s irrelevant. As Mille Lacs now holds the No. 1 spot and the governor – not coincidentally – spends his free time promoting such, smart area businesses will ride his coattails.
I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the B.A.S.S. media machine when it comes to promotion of an area’s bass fishing. As Lake St. Clair came into the limelight in the earlier part of this century, I watched as area hotels and restaurants began to offer discounts and bass fishing specials to traveling anglers, packing them in all spring.
In most cases, it’s necessary to adapt a business for changing times. It appears those times are now on Mille Lacs. What better way to wait out the walleye rebound than to sell boat gas and hotel rooms to bass fishermen? Believe me, they’ll add more to the economy than just about any group in the outdoors.
Fisheries management also must adapt. As we’ve seen in recent times, many of our lakes and rivers, particularly those in the North, are transitioning from cool-water fisheries dominated by walleye, perch and pike to warm-water climes loaded with bass and crappies. Increasing overall water temperatures are likely a reason; shifts in forage and habitat also play a role.
In the near future, the Minnesota DNR will also face a changing angler base, as more fishermen travel to Mille Lacs to beat up on bass. In time, those fish, once the stepchildren of the lake, will take center stage and need careful consideration in terms of management.
Perhaps by then, everyone will realize they’re all working toward the same goal.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)