Yellow Bass of the Fairmont Chain

I was on the phone last night with an old Minnesota fisherman. He asked if I’d done anything interesting lately. I said, “See if you can guess. What are yellow with black markings, plentiful, and taste good when they’re battered and fried?”

“Bananas.” 

“Yeah, well, okay….here’s another hint: they wiggle and flop when you throw them on the ice next to your sled.”

“Puppies?”

“What? No! I’m talking about yellow bass.”

“Huh. Never heard of ‘em.”

No kidding. 

Invaders From the South

He’s a really bad guesser. And I should have known better than to think he would be familiar with yellow bass. After all, they’re newcomers in our land. I personally didn’t know about them until a couple years ago. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to slip down to Fairmont, where they were recently introduced into the chain of lakes. 

Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis) are only barely native to Minnesota, despite their presence in Martin County. They were historically found in the Mississippi River south of Red Wing, but have become somewhat rare. As a result they are considered a species of special concern there in their original habitat. From what I’ve gathered, there were no native inland populations. 

Ryan Doorenbos, Area Supervisor at the Windom Fisheries office, says this population of yellow bass came onto the radar in February of 2013. Anglers reported catching a couple, and DNR staff followed up with a survey effort which confirmed their presence. Since then, he says, “They certainly have made their mark there.”

Initial surveys brought in a modest catch, but more recent surveys revealed them in much greater numbers. What’s more, there have been many year classes represented, which means they are reproducing successfully. There’s no turning back now, less than ten years after they arrived “probably in a bucket,” as Doorenbos puts it. 

When I was in Fairmont last week, the word on the street was that yellow bass had been introduced by anglers who used to go to Clear Lake (Iowa) to catch them, but didn’t want to drive that far. Sounds like a poor excuse to potentially ruin the fishing in 4 or 5 lakes, but the damage is done. Might as well make the best of it for now. 

Counterattack From the North

So, last Wednesday I got an early start and drove south to try my luck with yellow bass. I’m always looking to do something new, as well as bring some fish home to eat. On my way through town I scoped out the lakes: George, Sisseton, Budd, and Hall. The one with the most activity by far was Budd, so that’s where I parked and prepared for deployment. 

Now, there is precious little information out there about ice fishing for M. mississippiensis, so it wasn’t clear to me how to attack the lake. After a few holes and a few hundred yards, some active fish appeared on my sonar screen. It was about 15 feet deep there. Those fish were extremely receptive to my lure but reluctant to bite. Two respectable crappies came up in the first 10 minutes or so, but the sheer numbers and excitability of the school just didn’t seem crappie-like. I thought they could be yellow bass, but nothing short of a catch would confirm it. 

After finding more like-minded schools elsewhere in similar depths and talking with other anglers, it was apparent that yellow bass were the ones toying with me. The consensus was they’d act more hungry later in the day. By then it was time for lunch and I was the one who was certifiably hungry. I headed for the access. 

On a whim, I drilled one more hole before I got there. I lowered my tungsten jig and waxworm toward the shifting signals near the bottom, not expecting much. I was astonished to feel a bite. My first yellow bass was a modest 7-incher— nothing to brag about. 

Still, lunch would have to wait. 

Over the next 15 minutes or so I pulled up two bluegills, a tiny perch, and three more yellows. One of them was nice, measuring right at 10 inches. Three little yellow bass and one big one didn’t seem like much, but at least I’d drawn first blood. I hightailed it for the car when they quit biting. 

Before heading back out for my next assault, I chatted up a guy in the parking lot who looked like he knew a thing or two. He thought the bite would pick up toward the end of the day. Among other things, he suggested I keep my lure near the bottom for bigger yellow bass. The fish that rise several feet off the bottom to meet and/or follow a lure are allegedly the small ones. 

From what I could tell, he was right. The ratio of big fish to little fish turned around quite nicely. By the end of the day, I had 8 small yellows and about 15 big ones. It was enough to drop off some fillets for my parents, as well as provide two meals for my household. Not bad for one day fishing in 50-degree sunshine.

The Battle Rages On

My experience was good, but it might not stay that way. Doorenbos acknowledges that the dynamics involved with yellow bass being introduced into natural lakes is fairly new territory, as far as resource management is concerned. There is no precedent within Minnesota, so he’s been in touch with Iowa fishery professionals. They have had several new populations of yellow bass appear recently in lakes like Okoboji and Spirit (just over the border). Studies are underway. It looks like these illegal stockings are becoming a phenomenon, and the long-term implications are not yet known. 

Planned surveys in the Fairmont chain are aimed at keeping a close watch on the yellow bass population. Over time, Doorenbos expects (or at least hopes) their numbers will taper somewhat and that they will settle into their niche in the ecosystem. If surveys reveal that yellow bass stop growing and become stunted, it would be considered a sign of overpopulation and imbalance. For now, he sounds optimistic that the current predator population will keep them in check. When asked if anglers could have a positive impact on the population through harvest, he laughed and said, “Based on my discussions with Iowa DNR…it’s not likely, at all.”

For now, anglers seem to be taking modest numbers from the system. When it comes to what is allowed, Doorenbos explains, “We’re in this in-between period.” He says there are currently no regulations that directly address this new yellow bass fishery, but that they could appear as soon as next year (2022). For anybody wondering about this year, “In my opinion, there’s no limit on them right now.” 

When I was down there, I heard of a guy leaving with a 5-gallon bucket full of yellow bass. That wasn’t my experience, but I wouldn’t have wanted to clean that many, anyway. I can see how it would be possible, though; wherever I found the yellows, they were plentiful. They were stacked up in the 14-17 foot range, pretty much all over the lake. If I get back there, that’s where I’ll start looking. 

As far as fishing tactics are concerned, tackle geared for perch and panfish seem best. I experimented with several lures but never scored with anything bigger than I’d throw at bluegills. Thinking it would be cool to catch one on my tip-up, I rigged it with a crappie minnow. That never got a hit, but it was worth a try. 

In all, it was a worthwhile excursion. I’ll probably look for an opportunity to go back with my wife and kids and other family members around this time next year. I’d encourage any interested parties to do the same.

So, go make some memories and add a new fish to your life list. Catch a bucketful of yellow bass and make sandwiches, or fish tacos, or fish cakes, or whatever. They’re pretty good, honestly.

Even better than fried bananas. 


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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018