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Lake Mille Lacs produces plenty of catch-and-release walleye action, trophy smallmouth

Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn., landed this 28.5-inch walleye – his new "PB" – Saturday, June 24, on Lake Mille Lacs while fishing one of the big lake's mudflats with fishing guide Jason Freed. As required for all walleyes on Mille Lacs, the fish was released. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 1 / 7
Peter Howard of St. Paul fights a smallmouth bass while fishing guide Jason Freed mans the net June 24 on Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 2 / 7
Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn., brings a walleye to the boat while fishing guide Jason Freed mans the net June 24 on Lake Mille Lacs. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service3 / 7
Jason Freed steers his boat onto the trailer June 24 at the end of a day's fishing on Lake Mille Lacs. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service4 / 7
Fishing guide Jason Freed of Leisure Outdoors Adventures releases a smallmouth bass June 24 on Lake Mille Lacs. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 5 / 7
Go big or go home, as the old saying goes, and the first-ever smallmouth bass for Peter Howard of St. Paul turned out to be a trophy Saturday, June 24, when he landed this 21.5-inch bronzeback on Lake Mille Lacs. Guide Jason Freed said the smallie was the biggest ever to come into his boat. Howard released the fish after a quick photo. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 6 / 7
Fishing guide Jason Freed watches his electronics Saturday, June 24 while fishing a mudflat on Lake Mille Lacs. A social studies teacher in Brainerd, Minn., Freed guides during the summer as a partner in Leisure Outdoor Adventures. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 7 / 7

GARRISON, Minn.—We're barely into our first drift on this breezy Saturday morning, and Scott Jensen is into a walleye. A good one, too, by the looks of it.

For his two fishing partners, both University of North Dakota hockey fans, it's tough to take when a fisherman wearing a blinding-yellow Minnesota Gophers hoodie hooks into the first fish of the day.

At least he's replaced his Gophers hat from the previous evening with a Minnesota Twins cap.

"Don't lose that fish," one of his buddies blurts, in keeping with fishing trip tradition; or words to that effect.

We're in a boat with fishing guide Jason Freed of Baxter, Minn. Besides Jensen, of St. Anthony, Minn., there's Peter Howard of St. Paul and myself. The three of us, all hockey nerds, chose Garrison as a meeting point to watch the NHL Draft and get together for a day in the boat.

Jensen's Gopher gear aside, it's always fun when we get together, whether it's on the water or in the woods.

This day would be no exception.

A social studies teacher and football coach at Brainerd High School, Freed is a partner in Leisure Outdoor Adventures, a guide service offering fishing excursions on lakes across central Minnesota. Leech Lake is their unofficial home water, but Freed and his six guide partners will fish anywhere from Bemidji to Lake Mille Lacs and all points in between, he says.

"I think being a teacher is a lot like being a fishing guide," Freed, 36, said.

It's all about education and patience.

Walleye classroom

Freed's classroom for the day is Lake Mille Lacs, the renowned 128,226-acre Minnesota walleye fishery that has been in the news in recent years as fisheries managers try to get a handle on declining walleye stocks and low survival of young fish.

The latest twist is a zero-walleye limit and a 21-day walleye season closure from Friday, July 7, through Thursday, July 27, a time when walleyes are particularly susceptible to hooking mortality. Anglers can target other species during the closure, but only with artificial bait or lures. The only exception is for pike and muskie anglers, who can possess live sucker minnows longer than 8 inches if they don't have walleye gear in the boat. Walleye season on open water closes Sept. 4.

Oddly enough, walleye fishing on Mille Lacs has been red hot, a phenomenon the Department of Natural Resources attributes to a low forage base and less fishing pressure.

That probably explains why there's plenty of room on the first mudflat Freed explores a few miles from shore on the north side of Mille Lacs. A west-northwest wind just strong enough to be uncomfortable for smaller boats also could be a factor, but it's not an issue in Freed's Lund 202 Pro-V, a fiberglass fishing machine powered by a 300-horse Mercury.

"It's just a big frying pan," Freed said of Mille Lacs. "There's no place to hide when it comes to the wind, that's for sure."

Fishing the flats

This time of year, it's all about the mudflats, the mesa-like structures that rise up from the bottom of the lake in dozens of areas across Mille Lacs. The mudflats support bug hatches that in turn attract walleyes. The plan, Freed says, is to drift spinners and crawlers across the mudflats in 25 to 27 feet of water on the top edges, keeping the bait far enough from the bottom to avoid stirring up the mud, and at the base of the mudflats in 30 to 33 feet.

Later, we'll fish rocky areas closer to shore in hopes of tying into a few of the smallmouths that have given Mille Lacs a new claim to fame in recent years. Bassmaster magazine just named Mille Lacs the top bass fishery in the U.S., up from No. 6 in 2016, and last year's Bassmaster championship on the lake produced 94 limits that topped the 20-pound mark, Bassmaster said.

Bassmaster is returning to Mille Lacs Sept. 14-17 for its Toyota Angler of the Year Championship.

"They say the amount of walleye fishermen is down, but people are still coming out. It's the smallmouth fishermen that are up—big time," Freed said. "People from Texas, Louisiana, down south, Oklahoma—all those people are coming up here because of what happened in the Bassmaster last year, so they want to come up and see what it's all about.

"There's giant smallmouth in Mille Lacs," Freed added. "You have a legitimate chance at catching a 20-inch plus fish. That's a trophy."

Getting the drift

Despite the cool, breezy conditions, walleye fishing lives up to the reports, and every drift across the flats produces two or three walleyes and the occasional miss. When fishing a new flat, Freed watches his electronics until he marks fish; he then sets up a series of waypoints on his GPS to stay on course, using his trolling motor to keep the drift speed at about 1 mph.

There'll be no walleyes for the cooler, but that doesn't stop us from talking the talk:

"Ooh, nice eater."

"We'll keep him."

"That one would have tasted good on a sandwich."

The mixed bag of walleyes—everything from "nice eaters" (in name only) to trophies such as the 28½-incher Jensen releases to set his new personal best—makes it difficult to reconcile our catch rates with the science of a walleye fishery in distress. But since none of us are interested in keeping fish anyway, feeling them tugging at the end of the line with regularity is good enough.

"I could care less, actually," Jensen said. "It's always fun to catch maybe one or two and then eat it immediately on shore, but I could care less about bringing anything back home. It usually just winds up in the freezer forever anyway."

We pass the time between bites by talking hockey and sharing memories, like the story of the traveling grouse camp trophy Howard won last fall by bagging the most ruffies during our crew's annual October gathering. Or the giant Mille Lacs muskie that went after a 24-inch walleye a few days earlier when Toby Kvalevog, a former UND goalie and one of Freed's guiding partners, hosted a group on the lake.

Kvalevog said the muskie was at least 55 inches long, Freed recalled.

"He said it was the biggest muskie he's ever seen in his life, out here suspended off the mudflats," Freed said. "You start thinking about a muskie that's going after a 24-inch walleye, that's a pretty big fish."

Trophy time

We've released probably 30 walleyes when Freed decides to head for a large reef closer to shore to close out the day. The relentless wind thwarts plans to cast surface baits for smallies off shallow rock piles, but the reef can hold both walleyes and smallmouths, he says.

Fishing in about 12 feet of water, Howard finds that out on our second drift down the reef when he sets the hook, and the line keeps going.

The bouncing rod tip confirms it's not a snag. How sweet it is.

"I would say that's ... not a walleye, the way that thing is shaking," Freed said, readying the landing net and coaching Howard as the reel drag screams. "Ooh, she's running. I think it's a bass, a good one. ...

"Oh, it's a BIG bass."

Then it's in the net, 21½ inches of smallmouth bass, Howard's first and the biggest bronzeback ever to come into Freed's boat.

There's a good chance Howard hasn't smiled that wide since his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs clinched an NHL playoff spot.

"Oh man, that's a giant—an absolute football," Freed said. "That is a toad."

And so it went on a breezy day when the walleyes cooperated and went back in the lake, when Howard caught and released the biggest smallmouth bass of his life and Jensen, despite his blindingly yellow Gophers hoodie, landed bragging rights with a 28½-inch "PB" walleye that earned him praise from his UND hockey fan buddies.

A heck of a day it was, by any measurement.

"We had as much fun as anybody out there, and we could care less about keeping fish," Howard said.

There you have it.

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