Summer fishing seasons come and go, each one dawning with a new set of regulations. The year-over-year changes are shaped by issues tackled by DNR fisheries personnel over a range of time. What follows is a summary of five of those issues, starting with the good fortune of an abundant walleye scene on Upper Red Lake.
Large lake boom
Upper Red Lake walleye anglers will be allowed to take four fish this season, including one longer than 17 inches. The increased bag limit is a success for the DNR’s large lakes program, where fisheries managers around the state have been collaborating successfully on strategies to recoup and sustain healthy populations of the state fish.
Previously depleted by overharvesting, Red Lake’s comeback began with a seven-year shutdown of sport and tribal fishing. Now there’s so many spawning-age walleyes in the lake, they’re competing with each other for needed space and forage, said Gary Barnard, area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji. Expanding Red’s harvest will relieve the pressure and improve the survival rates of young fish, Barnard said.
Each of the 10 lakes in the large lakes program has its own story, but walleye news throughout the group has been mostly good. Leech Lake in Walker, for instance, has rebounded from a walleye shortage to the point where walleye stocking hasn’t been needed for a couple of years. And at Lake Vermilion this season, the DNR has eased the slot restriction because recent harvests have been well within the safe-harvest range.
The other lakes are Lake of the Woods, Winnibigoshish, Cass, Rainy, Kabetogama, Pepin and Mille Lacs. Together they account for 40 percent of the state walleye harvest.
A key to the success has been to understand just how many spawners are needed for walleye to thrive in a given lake. Too many and baby fish become stunted from lack of food. Being too small for too long puts them at higher risk for predation.
Mille Lacs woes
Wanting to extend summer catch-and-release walleye fishing for as long as possible this year, DNR fisheries managers have ordered a first-of-its-kind hiatus in July to keep anglers from exceeding a very limited 2017 harvest restriction. For Mille Lacs area businesses, it’s nothing but a dim light in the corner of a gloomy room. The walleyes are biting, but anglers are staying away in droves because they can’t keep any of the fish for table fare.
Mille Lacs will be closed to walleye fishing from July 7 to July 27. That’s when hot weather worsens hooking mortality — the tendency for caught fish to die after being released. This summer’s walleye allocation for state-licensed anglers is a slim 29,100 pounds. Estimated hooking deaths count against that cap. If needed, the DNR could surpass the 2017 allocation to keep walleye fishing open through Labor Day. But any overage would have to be offset by taking fewer fish in future seasons.
Under state and tribal comanagement, walleyes in Mille Lacs have been in decline for years, partly due to invasive zebra mussels and spiny water fleas. The core, perplexing issue is that too few baby walleyes are surviving long enough to bolster the lake’s spawning stock. While biologists study the trend, authorities are staying conservative in setting the lake’s annual “safe harvest level’’ to protect what spawners remain.
Northern pike zones coming
It’s been in the pipeline for more than two years now, but an all-new zoned approach to northern pike regulations appears to be a done deal as soon as the Legislature signs off on a minor technicality.
The package was borne out of three unique management challenges, including the plague of too many hammer-handle northerns upsetting the sport fishing balance in north-central area lakes.
Pike grow slowly in that region and fishing pressure is high. To address the overabundance of small pike and to protect more of those that grow big, anglers will be able to keep lots of fish under 22 inches long and far fewer fish over 26 inches long. The protected slot length for northern pike in this region will be 22 to 26 inches. The bag limit will be 10 fish, including two over 26 inches long.
Elsewhere, in the northeast, the proposed new rules are meant to keep the region full of trophies. Northerns grow slowly in the northeast, but because they’re scattered across an area with less fishing pressure, they can grow quite large. The proposed rule change? A two-fish bag limit with one fish allowed longer than 40 inches. No fish can be kept if it’s between 30 to 40 inches.
In Minnesota’s southern zone, where pike are not abundant and don’t reproduce very well, fishing pressure is high. But northerns grow fast there and the DNR hopes to boost abundance and size of harvested pike by limiting anglers to two fish. According to the proposal, the two keeps must be at least 24 inches in length.
State fisheries chief Don Pereira said the Legislature only needs to change a simple statute that now prohibits anglers from keeping more than one northern pike longer than 30 inches. New language is proposed in the DNR’s policy bill. If the bill stalls, the agency will look for another vehicle.
“We still really need this to happen,’’ Pereira said.
DNR for walleye bag reduction
There’s lots of exceptions around the state, but six walleyes per angler is the rule of thumb for the possession limit. Pereira said a strategic review of the longtime standard has the agency leaning toward a lower walleye bag limit of four — the same as on Red Lake, Vermilion and other well-known walleye waters.
“We would generally be favorable to a reduction,’’ the fisheries chief said. “It would be good for consistency.’’
The DNR has engaged public stakeholders in the discussion, but any change would require more study and new discussions in a larger circle of public opinion. But there’s no question that the movement toward smaller daily limits has begun. In part, it’s a response to increased fishing pressure from anglers equipped with advanced electronics and new information via social media that pinpoints where the fish are biting.
If all goes well, a lower statewide bag limit on walleyes could be rolled out in 2019.
The DNR’s spin on stream trout fishing in southeastern Minnesota is this: “The golden years are right now.’’ Record numbers of trout stamps have been sold to state anglers over the past few years as word continues to spread that cold-water trout are plentiful throughout bluff country.
Pereira said Mother Nature has done most of the work by providing excellent conditions for natural reproduction. But state fisheries biologists are boosting the prosperity with improved stocking plans, modernized stream restorations, enhanced monitoring and protection of natural lands that buffer headwaters and tributaries. The valleys in the region are blessed with natural springs that feed 700 miles of trout streams.
“We really want folks to be aware of how good it is right now,’’ Pereira said.
Still, there’s room for improvement. He said DNR scientists are revamping the agency’s stocking of brook trout to better augment wild populations of brown trout. Rainbow trout also inhabit the streams. The genetics project revolves around finding a better strain of native brook trout to improve the performance of stocked fish.