In the 1980s, Pelican Lake near Orr was well known throughout the Midwest for its big and plentiful sunfish. Motels and resorts near the lake were routinely filled with anglers from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and of course Minnesota, all seeking fun-to-catch and great-to-eat sunfish.
On occasions when I fished the lake, at day’s end a line 10- to 20-anglers deep often stretched around the fish-cleaning house near the Orr public dock. Most everyone had 20-sunfish limits.
Today, Pelican still has sunfish. But not in the numbers or size it once did.
The same downward size trend, unfortunately, affects sunfish throughout Minnesota — sunfish being a catchall word that includes bluegills, pumpkinseeds, green sunfish, orangespotted sunfish, northern sunfish, and warmouth.
The reason: Anglers keep too many big sunfish, generally meaning those 8 inches and longer.
“Sunnies, or bluegills, are easy to catch, they’re delicious and it’s easy for anglers to take limits when they’re biting,’’ said Dave Weitzel, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) area fisheries supervisor in Grand Rapids. “When I was a kid, I did it, too.’’
Weitzel and other fisheries managers hope anglers agree a new approach to sunfish management is needed. About 16 million sunnies are harvested each year in the state, making them Minnesota’s most popular sport fish. So angler buy-in is required if a new regulatory plan is to be effective.
Already, 60 Minnesota lakes are governed by regulations whose goal is to improve sunfish sizes. Some have five-sunfish limits, and the restrictive bag appears to be having the desired effect on average sizes.
Before 1954, Minnesota had open and closed seasons for sunfish. Since then, sunnies have been legal year-round, and in the same time period their average size has fallen significantly.
“It would be difficult today to implement an open and closed season for sunfish in Minnesota due to the wide variation, north to south, of their spawning times,’’ Weitzel said.
The DNR is instead proposing to increase the number of lakes with special sunfish regulations to between 200 and 250 by the year 2023. Sunfish bag limits on the lakes would be between five and 10.
Undoubtedly, cutting the current 20-sunfish limit would also boost average sizes. But public support for lowering the limit is lacking, the DNR says. So in addition to adding lakes with special sunfish regulations, the agency hopes anglers in the future will voluntarily keep fewer of these fish, especially bigger ones.
“It’s a good idea to keep only a limited number, say five, over 8 inches,’’ Weitzel said. “And it’s also a good idea not to keep the big males that can be caught while guarding their nests during the spawn. They should be released.’’
More information about the DNR’s plan to increase sunfish sizes is available at tinyurl.com/y2a47plk.