ONAMIA, Minn. — A $1 million purse is up for grabs this weekend as Mille Lacs Lake hosts the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, a tournament that’s expected to give a badly needed $3 million boost to the local tourism economy.
Mille Lacs-area businesses and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have been promoting the big lake as a bass fishery to help make up for the decline of its walleye population and the resulting loss of business. Walleye angling was limited to catch-and-release only this season, and the DNR closed the walleye season early, on Sept. 6, because anglers had already met their quota for the year.
Landing the bass tournament was a coup for Mille Lacs. The elite series had never come to a Minnesota lake before the top 50 bass anglers in the country descended on the area this week.
“In the world of fishing, this is as big as it gets. These are the anglers that you see on ESPN Saturday and Sunday mornings. These aren’t people who have other full-time jobs. This is their full-time job,” said Eric Lopez, director of events operations for Bassmaster.
The anglers were pleased as the tournament opened Thursday, especially with the size of the fish. The first-day leader was Takahiro Omori, of Emory, Texas, whose catch of five smallmouth bass totaled 26 pounds, seven ounces. He told the weigh-in audience, “This is my best smallmouth bass fishing ever.”
“There have never been this many big smallmouth bass caught in Bassmaster tournament history,” tournament emcee Dave Mercer said after the day’s weigh-ins at Grand Casino Mille Lacs. “Nothing holds a candle to this.”
On Saturday, the pros will take a day off from competition for “Bassmaster University,” a series of free seminars to teach people how to catch those lunkers. The tournament concludes Sunday. The winner will receive $100,000. The rest of the field shares the remainder of a $1 million purse. All bass are returned to the lake after the weigh-ins.
While Mille Lacs was once considered Minnesota’s premiere walleye fishery, the species has been on a long-term decline. Biologists say the main reason has been too few young surviving to maturity. They suspect the cause includes a complex interaction of clearer water, warmer temperatures, invasive species and predation. But they also point to the strong survival of walleyes hatched in 2013 as a reason for optimism.
The exposure from the tournament is broadening Mille Lacs’ reputation as a multi-species lake, said Tina Chapman, director of the Mille Lacs Tourism Council. She noted that Mercer caught a 52-inch muskellunge.
“People across the country are seeing what a great fishing lake this is,” Chapman said.