This year's booklet of Minnesota fishing regulations carries a new half-page message that departs from the age-old public view that our lakes and rivers are better off without suckers, bullheads, dogfish, gar and other nongame species.
"Don't kill and dump rough fish,'' the Department of Natural Resources admonishes in its public service advertisement.
The information campaign, launched recently on the DNR's social media channels, will be amped up during the state's traditional fishing opener in mid-May. State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said it's designed to reverse prevalent beliefs that nongame fish are "trash'' or "junk.''
"These are fish we need,'' Parsons said. "There's still a perception that if it's not a sunfish or another game fish, it's a carp.''
Fisheries managers of yore helped plant the culture of disrespect by poisoning so-called "rough fish" to rid them from waterways. Myths have grown up around some species that they stunt walleye production.
With the exception of common carp, a destructive, nonnative fish still targeted by the DNR for mass removal from shallow lakes, nongame species have important roles in the ecosystem, the agency is teaching. Redhorse and other suckers are a vital food source for game fish. Buffalo eat unwanted algae. Gar and dogfish (bowfin) are among the few fish that eat carp. Minnows thrive by eating suckers' eggs. There's also growing interest around the country in targeting certain native, nongame species for table fare and catch-and-release sport.
Just last year, DNR championed a bill at the Legislature that elevated eelpout (burbot) from unprotected rough fish to game fish. The new designation gives DNR the authority to establish a season and bag limit for the species.
Asked if the agency will seek similar protection for other species that can now be caught in unlimited numbers, Parsons said the topic receives ongoing internal discussion. At least two species of rough fish in Minnesota — the black redhorse and black buffalo — are currently designated by wildlife officials as species of special concern, he said.
"Whether a fish has a limit or not, we don't want them wasted,'' Parson said. "They are part of the ecosystem.''
Minnesota has a standing law against needless killing of wild animals, but the so-called "wanton waste'' statute hasn't traditionally applied to anglers who catch, shoot or spear piles of nongame fish and spread them in fields as fertilizer, convert them to animal food or put them to other use.
Such was the case in January when a small group of excited spear-fishers slaughtered 82 gar on the Minnesota River. They were aided by live, underwater video imagery. Someone in the group filmed the action and posted it on YouTube. It showed as many as three gar being speared in unison as the fish schooled beneath a single hole in the ice. The filming ended with footage of the bloodied fish — including at least two long-nosed gar — laid out beside the ice hole.
Joe Albert, a spokesman for the DNR's enforcement division, said a conservation officer in the Mankato area was notified of the slaughter by the video creator. Albert said the officer became satisfied that the group used the fish "in some fashion.'' No tickets were issued and no report was filed.
When it comes to carp — an invasive species that took hold in the U.S. during the 1800s — Parsons said he can go along with the idea of utilizing them as fertilizer. But he frowns on that kind of dumping when it comes to native suckers and other native species now classified as rough fish.
"We're trying to raise awareness that it's fun to fish for them … a lot of these fish are quite good to eat,'' he said.
Rough fish advocate Corey Geving, founder of the website roughfish.com, said the "Don't Kill and Dump" DNR messaging campaign is being widely shared around Facebook, fostering valuable conversations in fishing groups and elsewhere.
The discussions have the potential to reduce the common misrepresentation that rough fish are garbage and that the DNR wants anglers, spearers and archers to get rid of them, Geving said. But bag limits also are needed, he said, even if it's a limit of 50 or more, he said.
"When you say, 'Kill as many as you want,' there's this implication that it's a good thing if you kill as many as you want,'' Geving said.
Around the country, more fish and wildlife agencies are seeing the light. Geving said Missouri initiated protection for northern hogsuckers in its streams and rivers. In some western states, officials have set fishing regulations for other sucker species. In Texas, conservation measures have been taken for buffalo fish, accommodating public interest in fishing for them in tournaments.
In Minnesota, Geving said native bigmouth buffalo remain unprotected despite their value as algae-eaters and their wondrous genetic makeup that allows them to live beyond 100 years. The suckers grow large and are susceptible to killing by bowfishers because they make easy targets, Geving said. At night, the slow-moving buffalo come to the surface to feed on plankton.
Geving said he and others also would like to see possession limits placed on redhorse. Minnesota has six varieties of the fish. The golden redhorse, found in the Root River among other places, is the sucker highlighted in the DNR's 2021 booklet of fishing regulations.
"Only kill a rough fish if you plan to use it,'' the booklet states.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213