Now that the ice is mostly off the St. Croix, anglers will soon criss-cross the lower river looking for schools of white bass. Often under gray skies with only the faintest green on the bank, they cast and reel, kept warm and dry by fleece and Gore-Tex.
In summer, white bass (Morone chrysops) ply the wide waters of Lake St. Croix, where silvery shad minnows burst through the surface ahead of a school, as the baitfish try to escape. It’s a special sight on a calm morning when the water is flat and warm.
In April and May, the fish leave the open lake to spawn in shallows near the shores or in the river’s tributaries. Their runs are carefully watched by eager anglers. Many say they spawn when lilacs bloom, while research has shown it’s when water temperature reaches about 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
White bass don’t appear in as many photos as largemouth or smallmouth bass, muskie, or sturgeon, but this low-profile fish was the single most harvested species in the St. Croix in a 2013 survey, making up 30 percent of all fish taken. They are beloved for their fight and flesh, pulling hard when hooked, and can be cooked several ways.
“Tough fighters and great eating,” says Jim Shiely of Prescott, who has been fishing the river for 70 years. “The water would boil as they attacked schools of minnows.” He recalls once when a school of minnows beached itself on the sand in front of his feet in their frantic attempt to flee. (Note: Jim is my wife’s mother’s sister’s husband.)
For many years, the St. Croix River’s white bass were defined by their abundance. Females can carry as many as a million eggs, the species reproduces prodigiously, and the fish grow quickly. That’s why they are regulated much like sunfish or other panfish, with a current bag limit of 25 fish. But today, there are concerns the fish’s population has plunged, possibly because of increased popularity and loose limits.
“There’s no doubt in my mind there is a serious, substantial, reduction of white bass in the lower river,” Shiely says.
He’s not the only one who has noticed. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Joel Stiras says he has talked to other long-time anglers who have reported similar observations. The DNR’s reliable white bass survey data goes back 30 years, and shows results with lots of variation, though no significant decline. Longer-term data on Lake Pepin’s white bass show a strong cyclical rise-and-fall of the population. But Stiras does not dispute what Shiely and others say, and the DNR is currently considering a significant reduction for white bass harvest in the St. Croix.
Today, the regulations for white bass on the St. Croix allow anglers to keep 25 white bass each day, an astronomical figure compared to species like walleye and sauger (6 combined), largemouth and smallmouth bass (5), northern pike (5), and flathead and channel catfish (10 combined).
The disparity between the limit and the reality on the river is striking to Shiely. “No one could land more than five a day on the river on any regular basis if they’re lucky!” he says.
The potential regulations change is part of a larger process in which the Minnesota DNR is working with its counterpart in Wisconsin to assess fishing seasons and regulations in their shared border waters of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers.
”We are looking to match the new regulations on the Mississippi River border waters to simplify the regulations for connected waters, and to reduce bag limits for fish that could use some extra protection,” Stiras says. “White bass is one of them that may benefit from a bag limit reduction.”
Currently, anglers on the Mississippi can only keep 10 white bass, making the St. Croix’s 250 percent higher limits all the more appealing. For Wisconsin residents, questions concerning the possible regulation changes are part of next week’s virtual Conservation Congress.
Over the past 40 years, white bass have also become a favorite fish of the region’s Hmong population. The refugees from Laos say it reminds them of a similar species in their homeland, where the subsistence farmers got a lot of their protein from fish.
“According to [Tong] Vang, Minnesota’s Hmong anglers made the connection between white bass and the so-called flat mouth, a white fish found in northern Laos, in the late ’80s,” wrote Youa Vang in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer last year. “Looking for an inexpensive source of food, Hmong anglers would fish from the shores of the Mississippi River. Any catch was acceptable, but the white bass became a coveted reminder of home.”
In response to interest from Hmong anglers, in 2016 the DNR began stocking white bass in Lake Phalen, on St. Paul’s East Side. Interest in the fish has been passed down from immigrant parents and grandparents to younger generation.
In recent years, some in the Hmong community have begun hosting bass fishing tournaments that promote catch-and-release. Keeping the fish plentiful is essential to sustaining their way of life.
Anyone who wants to see white bass fishing continue should be reassured by the most recent information.
Stiras reports that, last year, the DNR recorded a catch rate of 5.75 white bass per net, the highest on record since 1992. Biologists saw strong reproduction years in 2015, 2017, and 2020, and those fish should have reached good size by now. A third of the white bass surveyed last year were one year old.
”Since white bass grow so fast, the 2022 white bass outlook looks very good. Those one-year-old fish that were from the 2020 year class will be hitting 12+ inches this year, so there will be a strong population of quality sized fish this year,” Stiras says.
While work continues on changes to bag limits and other regulations for the long-term sustainability of the white bass population, the fish will surely lure many pursuers onto the St. Croix soon.
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