Vern Wagner

When Vern Wagner is not tournament bass fishing or teaching kids to fish, he can be found roaming the State Capitol working on fish habitat and fishing legislation.

The 2011 Legislative session could have been worse for fishing

Posted by: Vern Wagner under Fishing Updated: August 24, 2011 - 12:36 PM

 For most anglers in Minnesota “Could Have Been Worse” is usually how we respond to disappointment.  Missing from the 2011 Environmental Committees performance were any actions on passing the Shoreline Rules package, fixing the Game and Fish fund’s pending deficit, dealing with the Aquatic Plant management program or improving fishing. The Northern Pike program suffered a hit, as did permanent funding for the Aquatic Invasive Species management program. A recommendation to increase the AIS surcharge on boat registrations sank like an anchor. Increased fines for violating AIS rules were seen as a tax in Minnesota’s no tax climate: as were the proposed fishing and hunting license increases. Some Legislators suggested that if anglers wanted to voluntarily pay more for fishing licenses they could. This got me thinking, how about spaghetti dinners and bake sales? This worked for the teachers in my daughter’s elementary school. We could have DNR car washes, turkey and gun raffles all to benefit the shrinking Game and Fish dollars. I make a great cheesecake.

This year instead of funding AIS from an increased boat registration surcharge (which would have created permanent funding for more Conservation officers) Instead AIS funding came out of Lottery dollars. Given the need to find dollars; probably a good choice since these funds are generated by all - not just boaters and water recreational craft owners. Still basing funding on dollars that were somewhat pledged to other conservation and environmental projects might not be a long term solution. AIS prevention and education is going take millions of dollars and years of work. Currently lakeshore owners are absorbing most of the costs for AIS lake treatments. They have a financial stake far beyond that of the boat launching public, thanks to the legislature's failure to adequately man and fund an effective State AIS program.

 As to improving fishing in Minnesota, for many years former Fisheries Chief Ron Payor, built strong relationships with angling groups. Out of that came groups like the Walleye, Bass and Esox committees. Today we seem to be trending toward less stakeholder input and increased special interest lobbying. Will the DNR citizen budget oversight committee be reconvened and play a role in 2012?  In forming a natural recourses legislative agenda, how can the angler’s voices be included? For the past twenty or so years, the annual DNR Roundtable was part of this discourse. How important is it to have this grassroots conversation? 

 The reality is that managing resources has become so political and most politicians have no clue or appreciation for how much effort is put into proper scientific management. This includes building partnerships and consensus with a wide base of client interests.  The lack of appreciation for the long term nature of most natural resources work flies in the face of the"get'er done bunch" in St. Paul. With the reduction of special regulations for Northern Pike, we saw for ourselves how a balanced presentation of the facts and common sense were ignored and swept aside by committee members with political agendas and personal patronage issues that they placed ahead of the good of Minnesota's resources. This has lead to a beaten down leadership in a DNR that has been unable to deal with a "know it all" legislature who in fact knows little on the subject of resource management except how to profit from it "in the short term". Is compromise the only response that the DNR and anglers have? Compromise used to mean that half a fish was better than no fish at all. In today’s practices it seems to mean that half a fish; is better than a wholefish.

Doing our Part: Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention

Posted by: Vern Wagner under Fishing Updated: August 10, 2011 - 2:26 PM

All anglers and especially those of us who fish in Bass Clubs and Tournaments need to do their part in preventing the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species. This means more then just cleaning our boats and equipment. It might mean becoming a volunteer boat inspector. I’m suggesting that we all get the needed training and then contact the lake Associations and DNR to find volunteer opportunities. We need a behavior change at the boat ramp, and to do this we need anglers, not just DNR staff, Conservation officers or Lakeshore Association volunteers. We have over 3,500 fish-able lakes in Minnesota, with thousands of public and private accesses. Why Bass Clubbers and tournament folks- the 3 % of anglers in Minnesota? Isn’t it true that they are likely the best educated and self regulated? Maybe, but we are the folks who seem to get the most blame from the out-spoken and seemingly reactive lake shore owners?  To their point of view if someone is fishing on a lake infested with Zebra Mussels, then travels a week or month later to another lake, they need to be targeted. It’s understandable but hopefully misguided. Tournament anglers can be the leaders in showing best practices, but it’s up to them (us) to show up and be part of the solution.

 If your not part of the solution, you may be part of the problem

Sure AIS might be spread in a few other ways, then by boats and trailers. So what? Does this mean that we shouldn’t be trying to prevent what we can?

I hear it all the time, guys saying what about birds - can’t they also spread it? Or “Are they spraying down the ducks and geese too as they move between bodies of water?” Here’s another common comment “Are they going to scrub my boat down with soap as well? Perhaps wax it afterwards? ....and lift the boat off the bunks so those can get scrubbed too?? What a waste of time and money. Or that since we don’t know 100% about how travels it is pointless!

Then there are the anglers who really believe that Zebra Mussels are good for the lakes. The story goes like this “What they are not telling you is that the Zebra Mussel is also responsible for bringing the Lake Erie back from the brink”. True! The increased water clarity seems to have helped the Smallmouth Bass population increase, but as we all know, a shift in one fish population usually has an indirect effect on the whole ecosystem, rarely a positive one.

Here is what really happened: The destructive mollusk's larger, look-alike cousin, the Quagga, has finally pushed the zebra out. The zebra and the Quagga have been battling for turf in Lake Erie since the mid-1990s. Quagga won because they can live in deeper, colder water. The zebra mussel, named for its distinctive brown stripes, is a native of Europe. It first showed up in American waters in the mid-1990s and has since been blamed for everything from clogging water intake pipes of power plants to the destruction of freshwater unionid clams in the western basin of Lake Erie. The Quagga hails from Russia and showed up in Lake Erie in the mid-1990s. Although it is a bit bigger than the zebra, its impact on the lake is the same Quagga or Zebra, it really doesn't matter.

Fact is that zebra and quagga mussels impact food webs, which directly impact the fish you may be angling for. As they feed, zebra mussels deposit feces and regurgitated food (pseudofeces) on the bottom of a lake. These substances become food for bottom-dwelling worms, scuds, insect nymphs and larvae, making those invertebrate forms more abundant. Some fish may respond to this change by increasing their benthic (bottom) feeding or orienting to other prey that forages on the bottom. Also, as zebra mussels feed, they filter plant plankton from the water. This in turn makes the water clearer. Fish that are light-sensitive may seek deeper waters to find shelter from the penetrating rays of the sun.  As zebra mussels feed, they filter plant plankton from the water, making the water clearer. Fish that are light-sensitive may seek deeper waters to find shelter from the sun. As the sun penetrates deeper, aquatic plants can take root in more extensive areas than they did before zebra mussels moved into the area. Vegetation provides small fish with more places to hide and makes it more difficult for large predators to feed. This can result in stunted fish populations as well as pose significant problems for boaters.

Another idea is to let nature take care of the problem. (Rather then delay me at the ramp) Diving ducks and fish, such as sheepshead, common carp, redear sunfish and round gobies, do eat zebra mussels. Though they may reduce the number of zebra mussels in a limited area, none of these animals will eradicate zebra mussels from a lake. 

Anglers, people who trailer boats and other water equipment are seen as the problem, yet the greater threat may be the movement of watercraft that has been sitting in infested waters for long periods of time, and have live adult Zebra clusters. But we shouldn’t rule out daily users, vegetation or mud stuck to a trailer can contain ZB’s.  Water in livewells and bait buckets could contain young Zebra Mussels that are small and free swimming. 

To help with fishing contests and tournaments a special set of Best Practices has been developed, sort of a menu of measures that could be utilized. These can be found on the MN DNR website at

While we likely will learn more about how AIS is spread and could be better controlled, we need to focus on current best practices. What is at stake; is our lakes, rivers, fish populations and quality fishing.

Stop the Legislative Mandate to Lower the Quality of Northern Pike Fishing

Posted by: Vern Wagner under Fishing Updated: April 27, 2011 - 5:50 PM

As anglers, biologists, resort owners, and lake shore property owners we are shocked and dismayed that legislators are seriously considering bills that will mandate lower quality northern pike fishing.  If these bills (House File 225 and Senate File 213) becomes law they will limit the number of lakes managed for large northern pike to 60 out of the state’s 3,351 northern pike lakes and will go a long way to destroy 25-years of hard work to improve our fisheries.

 For the past 25 years, the DNR has taken a science-based approach to improve northern pike populations.  Many strategies have been evaluated and after years of research it has become clear that length-based regulations like slot limits are the best tool to improve pike populations while still allowing harvest.

 Regulations are now in place on 106 lakes based on sound management including evaluation, public input, and public approval.  Regulations are only in place where their effectiveness can be evaluated and are only continued if they work and have strong public support. Where they do not work or where there is strong opposition, the regulations are discontinued.  The implementation, evaluation, and public support for these regulations are a fisheries management success story.

 It is mind boggling that the legislature is even considering a bill that would take away tool that is proven and effective. At a recent Senate hearing, a lake association representative, anglers, and the DNR all testified strongly against this bill because they know, as we do, that these northern pike regulations work.  In most lakes with regulations, the average size and number of large pike has dramatically increased. We know this not only because of DNR evaluations, but because we fish these lakes.  Capping the number of lakes with regulations at 60 simply does not make sense.

 The arguments that supposedly support this legislation do not make sense either.  Based on testimony, we are supposed to believe that these regulations are examples of the DNR “overmanaging”, that “spearers do not often bother spearing on lakes with special northern regulations for fear of accidentally catching fish within the protected slot.", and that they just “want to take some fish home to eat.”  While this may be good political rhetoric, it is fails miserably as a rationale for managing the state fisheries. 

 First, management through regulations works just as intended. We call this “effective management” not “over management”.  Second, in a recent statewide survey conducted by the U of M, 80% of spearers responded that they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with northern pike spearing.  Third, there are 3,351 northern pike lakes in Minnesota covering 2.17 million acres. 97% of the lakes and 71% of the total acres of these waters statewide do not have regulations.  There are plenty of opportunities to harvest northern pike on lakes without regulations.

 The effect of these bills will go beyond northern pike.  In biological terms, large northern pike are a “keystone” predator that are critical to keeping fish communities balanced.

Large northern pike are no longer common in most Minnesota lakes.  Instead, we have lakes full of “hammer-handle” small northerns - a condition with which most Minnesota anglers are far too familiar. When hammer-handles take over, yellow perch populations crash, populations of small sunfish often explode, and walleye stocking often becomes futile. 

These bills are an unfortunate example of heavy-handed legislative overreach apparently based on misinformation from a small group. Minnesota has 1.5 million licensed anglers.  There are up to 15,000 darkhouse spearers and 80% of them are satisfied with their opportunities.  Enacting these bills into law is counter to good science, good planning, and good fisheries management. We can’t possibly understand how the legislature could be seriously considering these laws that will take opportunities away from 99% of the angling public just to appease a small fraction of anglers.

 If this bill passes, the DNR will be mandated to immediately remove regulations from 46 lakes.  We can only wonder when they will start mandating the number of lakes with walleye or bass regulations or the number of trout streams with regulations and then start dictating what size limits should be. This is policy making at its worst and we encourage all anglers to step up now and let their legislators and the Governor know that they should oppose such nonsense.

Vern Wagner, Vice President    Anglers For Habitat

What does Hunting and Fishing cost?

Posted by: Vern Wagner Updated: March 28, 2011 - 1:02 PM

Is it the cost? Or what it’s worth to you? These aren’t separate questions when it comes to maintaining the quality of our outdoor pursuits. So, what does it take to maintain, improve, and insure the quality hunting and fishing we have today and for the future? Over the last ten years budget cuts by the legislature and increasing inflation has eroded the DNR’s ability to put enough boots on the ground to manage the resources we all treasure.  

The State’s Game and Fish Fund is headed in the wrong direction. We can’t afford to let our resources decline. We can’t afford to wait. On the Fish and Wildlife side, eighty (80) staff have been lost. Even with a license fee increase, those jobs may never be regained. On the Fisheries side, losing 50 positions has sharply affected services. Here are just a few examples of what has been lost or cutback. 

Creel surveys have been cut back from about 30 lakes per year to 6 (leaving only the large lakes and not all of them are surveyed annually). Creel surveys quantify what anglers catch and harvest; this is an essential tool needed to evaluate regulations, allocate harvest, and manage the quality of fishing. Lake surveys were cut from over 700 per year to about 600 and stream surveys have gone down from over 200 to just over 100. These surveys are the basis of science based management, without them we are guessing. The longer they go between surveys the less valuable they are.  

Cuts to watershed projects and planning efforts fell from over 20 per year to zero. The ability to work with local communities and partners isn’t like it was six years ago. Trout, catfish, and sturgeon stocking have been cut back. Without sufficient funds, walleye, and muskellunge will be next, along with office closures and hatcheries. 

These cutbacks have already occurred, because license fees haven’t been raised in over a decade. Without an increase, services will further decline, as will the quality of our hunting and fishing experience. The DNR Wildlife Departments are experiencing similar constraints trying to manage and maintain the quality of 1.3 million acres of Wildlife Management Areas. Work with partners and private landowners on habitat is also suffering. More work is needed in prairie and shallow lake complexes.  When you add it up, this will gradually result in a decline in the quality of fishing opportunities we have to offer in Minnesota.  This will also put a 3.6 billion dollar industry and 55,000 jobs tied to excellent hunting and fishing at great risk.  

The Hook and Bullet community has always stepped up to the plate and paid their way. Now we need your help to push a Game and Fish Fund License increase through the Legislature. Bills are pending in both the House and Senate; they need to hear from us. This isn’t about tax increases or budget woes. A fishing license is the least of my costs when it comes to hunting and fishing. For just a few dollars more, everyone in Minnesota benefits. For more information visit:

 Vern Wagner

Vice President

Anglers for Habitat

Bass: Catch and Release - Hook and Delayed Mortality

Posted by: Vern Wagner under Fishing Updated: June 20, 2010 - 10:39 AM

It is likely that  most catching and releasing of large or Smallmouth Bass could result in 1-3% of hook mortality. This is much more likely when using livebait and in deep hooked situations with any type of lure or bait. Learning effective ways to remove deep hooks will lessen mortality. If you don't know how to safely remove a hook, cut the line leaving at least 12 inches of line andm leave the hook in. This will help to keep the shank of the hook pulled to one side of the gullet and allow the fish to continue to feed until the hook erodes.  A good article on Deep Hooks In or Out can be viewed at

Delayed mortality happens days, hours or weeks after release and comes from handling and/or exposure to diseases.  Here in Minnesota tournament organizers are working with the MN DNR to develop 'Best Practices Guidelines" for live release fishing contests to decrease delayed mortality. Factors effecting all fish are improper handling, temperature, oxygen levels and release sites/depths. During periods of very warm water and air temperatures such as in July and August; helping fish to survive requires very sophisticated practices. Some studies indicate that under poor circumstances and without special precautions 10% -25% delayed mortality is realistic (this includes the 1-3% hook mortality). It is hoped that this gold standard of "Best Practices" will educate not only tournament anglers to better techniques but also influence all anglers to use state of the art C/R methods.

As both anglers and tournament fishermen, we need to ask ourselves what fishing might be like 25 -50 years from now, and how those anglers will look back at the year 2010 when we hear folks bragging about hooking 50- 100 bass a day. Will we find that we did no harm, or will we have evolved  to different practices and for what reasons?


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