An estimated 67,000 smallmouth bass inhabit Mille Lacs, according to the DNR.
“This estimate roughly represents the number of adult bass in the lake. It does not include bass under 12 inches,” said Tom Jones, DNR regional fisheries treaty coordinator.
The population was made possible with the help of the Mille Lacs Smallmouth Alliance and Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation. The alliance kept detailed records of catches and provided length and tag numbers from more than 2,100 smallmouth bass, while Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation held several tournaments on Mille Lacs, and anglers provided similar data for more than 1,600 bass.
“Mille Lacs is the No, 1 bass fishery in the United States right now, and we just want to help protect it,” said Jim DeRosa, alliance president. “We’re really thrilled that we could play a small part in that.”
In 2013, smallmouth bass regulations changed to allow anglers more opportunity to keep smallmouth on Mille Lacs Lake. The move was made to permit anglers to keep some fish during a time when walleye harvest had been restricted or prohibited. During the past five seasons, smallmouth bass regulations have varied, but they generally have allowed harvest of bass under 17 inches. A 20-inch smallmouth bass is generally regarded as a trophy.
Jones said about half of the lake's smallmouth are over 17 inches, which is consistent with past assessments.
The growth of Mille Lacs' smallmouth population occurred fairly recently.
Though anglers have been allowed to keep more bass since 2013, creel surveys indicate that interest in keeping bass is low. The average number of bass kept each year is about 2,800. In recent years, anglers have caught and released more than 125,000 bass.
“Based on the estimated number of smallmouth bass in the lake and the number that anglers catch each year, it’s clear that these fish are being caught more than once,” said Tom Heinrich, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Garrison. “The anglers who are releasing those bass are helping maintain the lake’s incredible bass fishery.”
Bass season on Mille Lacs opens May 12. Prior to Saturday, May 26, all largemouth and smallmouth bass must be immediately released. Beginning May 26, the combined bass possession limit is three, with one over 21 inches. All bass 17 to 21 inches must be immediately released.