NEAR WALKER, MINN. – Call it a Minnesota angler’s Dream Lake — a body of water with lots of voracious fish, some of which have been caught, measured and weighed as many as 20 times before being returned to the frigid depths below.
Perhaps someday all Minnesota lakes will be managed similarly.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,’’ said Dallas Hudson, “if everyone could fish lakes where the fish aren’t stunted or haven’t been killed off by people keeping too many?’’
One of four landowners on a 160-acre private lake that he and others are researching, Hudson spoke on a recent day while a half-dozen of us stood over 2 feet of hard water. Every 20 minutes or so, someone set the hook on a northern pike, hoping to hand-line it through a watery cylinder Hudson had bored into the ice.
For about 20 years, Hudson and lifelong fishing pal Steve Bayman, both of Akeley, Minn., and both 49, have forsworn keeping northern pike from this lake. They also release most crappies and bluegills, withholding only the smaller specimens for an occasional meal.
The reason: They got sick of catching hammer-handle-size northerns, puny crappies and miniature bluegills — the result, they say, of too many people, themselves included, catching and keeping too many fish, particularly big fish.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has joined Hudson and Bayman on their excellent fishing adventure, and it allows them to implant identification tags in fish they catch and release in the lake.
“Dallas’ work shows us pretty clearly how vulnerable northerns, in particular, are to being caught,’’ said DNR area fisheries supervisor Doug Kingsley of Park Rapids, Minn. “When you can catch the same fish 15 times over, and sometimes two times in the same day, it seems clear that in many lakes we need to limit the harvest of larger fish if we want bigger northern pike in our lakes.’’
For Hudson and Bayman, the conversion from fish keepers to fish researchers-cum-release artists was a long time coming. And perhaps somewhat surprising, given their northern Minnesota street cred as pickup-driving, Carhartt-wearing, gun-toting hunters, trappers and fishermen.
“As a kid after school in winter, I’d walk onto 11th Crow Wing Lake to catch — and keep — a lot of walleyes,’’ Hudson said. “And spear northerns. I killed a lot of northerns.’’
But finally, desperation set in. That’s because 11th Crow Wing is no longer the angling mecca it once was, and neither, Hudson said, are other lakes in the Akeley and Walker area.
More specifically to his fishing interests, no longer did the lake he lives on boast bragging-size northerns. Or, for that matter, plump bluegills. Or slab crappies.
“Too many people keeping too many fish,’’ he said. “It’s that way in most Minnesota lakes.’’
So along with Bayman, Hudson struck a deal with his fellow lakeshore owners. There would be no spearing. No keeping northerns caught by hook and line. And no getting greedy with big panfish — bluegills particularly.
“I’ve always been curious how things in nature work,’’ said Hudson, a hydrotechnician with the U.S. Geological Survey. “What kind of plant is that? What kind of animal is that?’’
Now he asked himself: Is it possible to once again have larger fish in his lake? Walleyes, he knew, were out of the question without stocking, because they had been fished out decades ago.
Nor would there be a comeback for muskies, a fish that was native to his lake but that also had been eradicated by fishing pressure.
But what about northerns, bluegills and crappies — the lake’s bread and butter fish? Were they forever destined to be stunted representations of their former selves?