Josh Douglas laughs when he hears fishermen refer to Mille Lacs Lake as “the Dead Sea.”
Sure, the walleye population is down from the days when the giant Minnesota lake was known nationally for its excellent fishing. And the crowds of fishermen who once flocked to the famous body of water have dwindled.
But Mille Lacs still has plenty of life to it. And on Monday, Douglas provided vivid proof.
Not long after he pulled his boat onto a rock reef, he made a long cast with a black-and-purple marabou jig that he tied. Then Douglas used his trolling motor to pull that 3/32nd-ounce bait over the rocky structure that Mille Lac’s bruiser smallmouth bass call home.
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It wasn’t long before Douglas found one of those giants ready to eat. As he slowly trolled the jig in 12 feet of water, he got a jolting strike and he set the hook hard.
The bronze-colored fish shot to the surface and leaped, trying to throw the lure, but to no avail. In seconds, Douglas had the huge smallmouth in a net and was reflecting on Mille Lacs’ new fame.
“Fishermen who call Mille Lacs the Dead Sea don’t realize what kind of smallmouth bass fishing this lake has,” said Douglas, a guide and professional tournament fisherman who lives in Mound, Minn. “This lake is reinventing itself. It’s always been known for its walleyes, but the population is down right now and fishermen are going to other lakes.
“But Mille Lacs has some of the best smallmouth fishing in the country. There aren’t many places where you can go out and catch smallmouths like this one.”
Douglas weighed his catch and the numbers on the scale didn’t stop climbing until they hit 5 pounds. That’s a trophy fish anywhere you go.
But that one wasn’t alone. Trolling Douglas’ homemade jigs and big paddletail swimbaits over rocky reefs, he and two partners — Becca Doyle, manager of the Kansas City Boat and Sportshow, and I — consistently put other impressive bass in the boat. We landed one other smallmouth that weighed 5 pounds, 1 ounce, and another that went 4 pounds, 12 ounces, plus numerous others in the 3-pound range.
We weren’t alone. In another boat, guide Glenn Vinton and clients Darren Envall and Mark Adams of the National Marine Manufacturers Association also were finding success. They too caught and released impressive smallmouths, including one that measured 22 1/2 inches.
There were even reminders that Mille Lacs still clings to its national reputation as a walleye lake. Doyle caught a 7-pound walleye and proudly posed for pictures before releasing her catch.
None of the events surprised Douglas, who has been pounding Mille Lacs for the last couple weeks. He and his clients have enjoyed the type of legendary smallmouth bass fishing that avid anglers dream about.
Douglas estimates he and the fishermen he guides have caught and released three bass in the 6-pound range and another 25 in the 5-pound range. And that’s just in the last two weeks.
Such fishing is one of the reasons that Bassmaster Magazine recently ranked Mille Lacs No. 10 in its 2015 Top 100 rankings of the nation’s best bass lakes.
Why the sudden explosion of good fishing? Douglas credits the fact that the smallmouths are coming off the spawn and they are hungry. The mayfly hatch has started, the insects are rising in the water column and the bass are gorging on them.
That’s why Douglas likes to troll with a small marabou jig that imitates the insects, keeping them off the bottom where the smallmouths are feeding.
Later, he will catch bass on tube baits, drop-shot rigs, small swimbaits, Senkos and topwater lures. Finding the right location is a key. Mille Lacs has giant mud flats interspersed with rock reefs. Locate those rocky areas that are often in the middle of the lake and you locate the smallmouth bass.
Douglas uses the electronics on his boat to guide him to the productive spots, then his fishing instincts take over.
This is one of the best times of the year to catch those smallmouths, but Douglas will catch big fish later in summer on the rock reefs.
“The smallmouths don’t have anyplace else to go,” Douglas said. “A lot of Mille Lacs is mud bottom, so they’ll stay on these reefs.”
Whatever the case, Douglas is excited about the developments at Mille Lacs.
“These things go in cycles,” he said. “The walleye fishing will be back. But in the meantime, fishermen can come out here and get in on some of the best smallmouth-bass fishing they’ll find anywhere.”
About Mille Lacs Lake
▪ WHERE: Mille Lacs Lake is located in central Minnesota, about 600 miles north of Kansas City.
▪ SIZE: Mille Lacs is Minnesota’s second-largest lake (behind only Red Lake), covering 132,516 acres. It encompasses 207 square miles.
▪ CHARACTERISTICS: Mille Lacs is an inland sea. At some spots, fishermen are so far from shore that land can’t even be seen. The lake is generally shallow, with its maximum depth at 42 feet. It has massive mud flats, mixed with gravel and rock reefs.
▪ WALLEYE FISHING: Mille Lacs has long been known as one of the nation’s best walleye lakes. But the population has dropped in recent years, a combination of poor survival of juvenile fish, the effects of Native American netting and other factors. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources established its most restrictive regulations ever this year at Mille Lacs, allowing fishermen to keep only one walleye daily. That walleye must measure 19 to 21 inches or more than 28 inches. Still, guides report that trophy walleyes are being caught and released.
▪ SMALLMOUTH BASS: Mille Lacs has become one of the best bass lakes in the nation. In fact, Bassmaster Magazine ranked it 10th in its latest Top 100 rankings. It’s not unrealistic to hope for a 5-pound fish here. For more information on Mille Lacs’ smallmouth fishing, go to the website of guide Josh Douglas: joshdouglasfishing.com.
▪ LODGING: For information on Mille.Lacs’ lodging, call Darren Envall, manager of the Northwest Sportshow, at 800-777-4766 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.