Selective harvesting of largemouth bass for the future in Wisconsin

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ST. CROIX FALLS – The day at the end of July came straight out of a Chamber of Commerce brochure.

The sun glinted like diamonds over Lake Wisconsin as puffy white clouds streaked across a cobalt sky.

A fisherman’s fishing rod arched, a big fish jumped out of the water, and the call to “get another one” filled the air.

Hudson’s Mike Yurk and I knew we were lucky to be on stage.

The outing on Deer Lake near St. Croix Falls had blessed us not only with great weather and great outdoor camaraderie, but also with a fishing frenzy.

We threw 1/16 ounce jigs with pork rind frogs in the shaded shallows and with every third throw we had a hit. Or cast the same bait to the edges of the weeds in 5-15 feet of water and had the same result.

The greedy fish – the largemouth bass – were apparently everywhere. Most were 8 to 13 inches in length.

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While not trophies, some were definitely keepers in my book.

In fact, this size class and abundance of bass is why I twist Yurk’s Arm at least once a year to head to Deer Lake or other similar water in northwest Wisconsin.

The two keys are: lots of bass and special regulations that encourage anglers to catch smaller fish.

At Deer Lake, there is no minimum size limit, but bass between 14 and 18 inches must be released. The daily bag limit is five bars.

“I’m not one to just go for trophies,” said Yurk, a retired U.S. Army major who grew up in Oshkosh and later moved to Hudson with his wife Becky, aka the ” Bass Queen”. “I think anglers can miss out on a lot of the best fishing if they’re just looking for the biggest fish.”

Yurk, who was stationed in the southern states of the United States with legendary bass waters as well as overseas, said that one of his happiest surprises when he started exploring the lakes of the northwest Wisconsin was the high quality of bass fishing.

“It was, and is, better than anywhere I’ve ever lived,” Yurk said.

Largemouth bass are doing so well on many area lakes, in fact, that regulations have been put in place to encourage angling.

A 12 inch long largemouth bass is measured during a fishing trip on Deer Lake near St. Croix Falls.  The lake has no minimum size limit for bass but all 14-18 inch bass must be released.

This goes against the traditional catch and release ethic employed by most bass anglers. It also goes against a popular tradition that big mouths are not good to eat.

They are delicious.

I hadn’t kept a bass in over 30 years until 2013 when I visited a specially regulated bass lake in Burnett County. I kept some big mouths 13.5 inches long and it completely changed my perception of the species.

They are prolific and, unlike walleye, should have a very promising future in Wisconsin waters.

It is a matter of choosing the waters to be harvested.

In 2012, for example, the minimum size limit was removed for bass in most lakes in Burnett and Washburn counties. Deer Lake had its regulations changed in 2018.

The minimum statewide bass size limit is 14 inches.

A 2015 Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Assessment found that the largemouth deer population was very abundant, but had a small size structure and low growth rates.

The catch-per-effort of bass 8 inches or larger was 65 fish per mile in the 2015 survey, which ranked in the 96th percentile compared to other similarly sized lakes in Wisconsin.

Still, it only had 0.7 bass per mile of 15 inches or more, which puts it in the 17th percentile.

And it takes 9 years for a largemouth to reach 14 inches in length on Deer, 50% longer than average in northern Wisconsin waters, according to DNR data.

So on some lakes, it makes sense for every reason for fish-eating anglers to keep a big mouth.

If you didn’t know, the bigmouth is in the same family as the black crappie.

So it’s no surprise that a 12 or 13 inch bigmouth tastes just as good, if not better, than crappie. In my opinion, bigmouth is equal to walleye as a table dish.

But the largemouth resource is more abundant and durable.

In Wisconsin’s fishing landscape in 2022, there’s no better opportunity to selectively harvest largemouth bass on lakes with no minimum size limit.

Largemouth bass fillets coated in beaten egg and seasoned breadcrumbs are ready to be cooked.

Bass 12 to 13.9 inches are plump, make good-sized fillets (or large portions of meat if you prefer to cook the whole fish), and are delicious.

Sea bass flesh is flaky and white.

It doesn’t matter when you catch them. What matters is how you handle them.

It’s quite simple: get them on the ice as quickly as possible. By the way, the same goes for all species of fish.

Yurk and I enjoyed the late morning catch then moved to the middle of the lake where we drifted and enjoyed sandwiches for lunch.

In the early afternoon we fished for drop shots outside a weed line in 20 feet of water, catching a mix of bass and bluegills. The wind was gusting to 25 miles an hour at times so we moved to a sheltered bay.

There we found more bass and bluegills and a few rock bars. A 17 inch tall mouth, the largest of the day, hit a plastic worm rigged by Ned which I threw at a clump of vegetation in 8 feet of water.

During five hours on the water, we caught and released approximately 75 largemouth fish. Four of them – between 12.5 and 13.5 inches – came home with me.

If you haven’t eaten Wisconsin largemouth bass lately, give it a try. Harvest it from a lake with an abundant population, especially water with special regulations that encourage anglers to keep bass, and be sure to put it on ice quickly.

A largemouth bass fillet, prepared in the oven with a breaded coating, is served for dinner.

I think you, like me, will get hooked on this sustainable fishing opportunity in Badger State.

Here are three recipes that have become go-tos for me for Wisconsin fish, including panfish, walleye and, in recent years, largemouth bass.

Mustard and Mayo Bass: In a bowl, mix equal amounts of Dijon mustard (or other mustard of your choice) and mayonnaise. The mixture should be enough to coat the fillets you plan to cook.

Next, lightly coat the fillets with vegetable oil of your choice, then brush the mustard/mayo mixture on both sides of the fillets. Sprinkle the tops of the fillets with pepper or other seasoning of your choice.

Finally, bake the fillets in a 400 degree oven until they flake easily with the touch of a fork, usually about 10 minutes. They can also be cooked on a grill. I usually place them on aluminum foil and cook them on a grate over the coals or the burner.

The mustard/mayo coating helps keep the flesh moist and, in my opinion, adds a really nice flavor note to the fish.

Teriyaki bass: Pour enough teriyaki marinade into a bowl to cover the sea bass fillets, then add the fillets and place the bowl in the fridge for an hour or two.

I became a fan of two products, Veri Veri Teriyaki and Soyaki, two marinades that contain sesame seeds. But many other teriyaki products are commercially available. Another alternative is to make your own marinade from soy sauce.

About 15 minutes before mealtime, take the fillets out of the marinade and place them in a glass or metal pan and bake in a 400 degree oven until they start to flake, usually 8 to 10 minutes. The slightly sweet, slightly tangy marinade enhances without overpowering the taste of the fish.

I have also used this recipe to cook fish on a grill over a campfire. The home grill is another option.

Baked bass : Fried fish is a staple in Wisconsin restaurants and homes. But here’s a great alternative that, to me, tastes even better than anything cooked in oil and is mess-free.

Beat an egg and place it in a bowl. Dip the sea bass fillets in the egg, then coat the fillets with a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs.

I like a product called Shore Lunch Oven Style. You can also make your own with bread or panko breadcrumbs and seasoning.

Then bake the coated fillets for 10 to 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven. The result is a fluffy tenderloin on the inside with a thin, slightly crispy outer coating that isn’t overbearing. It’s as good – I would say better – than any fried fish.

Or try using largemouth bass in place of walleye in your favorite recipe. If the bass has been well handled and prepared, I think you will be very happy with the results on your plate. Remember: Place them on ice as soon as possible after capture.

And by selectively harvesting largemouth bass from select lakes, you’ll enjoy a long-lasting, prolific resource while relieving walleye and helping to improve the bass’ size structure.

For a list of lakes with special regulations that encourage the harvesting of largemouth bass, see the DNR Fishing Brochure at dnr.wi.gov.

Let me know what you think about catching and keeping more largemouth bass on Wisconsin lakes with no minimum size limit by emailing [email protected]

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