A Minnesota fish feud over muskie stocking has been settled — for now — with a decision by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to introduce the big predators to the Gull Lake chain around Nisswa, but not in lakes near Fergus Falls in Otter Tail County or in Big Marine Lake in the metro area.
Adding muskies to two lake chains was widely seen as a victory for muskie anglers, a group the DNR has described as the fastest growing segment of Minnesota sport fishing.
The announcement was a relief to residents of Otter Tail County who aggressively opposed the expansion of muskellunge out of fear that it would damage cherished populations of walleye and panfish. On Gull Lake, the DNR said, opposition was less vehement.
In either case, the agency has more work to do in convincing the public of its belief that muskies can coexist with other sport fish without eating them or hogging the food supply in a given lake, DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said.
“We need to work more with stakeholders,” Pereira said. “We’ve learned we can stock these fish” without harming others.
Monday’s announcement capped a two-year public input period that was prolonged for six months by controversy. At the Legislature this year, elected officials unsuccessfully sought to block the DNR from adding to the muskie’s range.
At Big Marine, two local governments voiced opposition to muskies along with the lake’s Disabled Veterans Rest Camp, a group that hosts injured vets on fishing retreats.
But Pereira said the ultimate decision to remove Big Marine from consideration was a closer look at the lake’s biology. He said researchers found signs of decline in forage fish, possibly from northerns.
A fourth location, the Fairmont chain of lakes in south Martin County, was chosen along with Gull to receive an infusion of muskie fingerlings beginning this fall. There was no strong opposition from people who live around the Fairmont chain.
“We overcame a lot of misinformation out there, mostly from lakeshore property owners,” said Robby Pollreis of Avon, a professional fishing guide who favors the DNR’s Year 2020 plan to introduce muskies to eight new waters.
With the addition of the Gull and Fairmont chains, three new muskie fisheries are needed to meet the goal. Pereira said the search for prospects, including at least one lake in the metro area, continues.
Aaron Meyer, co-chairman of the Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance, said he feared that a charged political climate would stifle the DNR even more than it did.
“Gull Lake was the big one,” Meyer said. “That’s the biggest win. This is about as good of an outcome as we could have hoped for.”
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, who lives on Gull Lake, ripped the DNR. He said the agency’s track record in wildlife management proves it can’t be trusted to safely manage muskie growth.
Anderson acknowledged that several local units of government in the Brainerd lakes area did not come out against muskie stocking when given the chance. But 70 percent of Gull Lake property owners were opposed to it, he said.
“To me it’s another example of government overreach,” Anderson said. “Our own government is superseding the majority will of the people around here. … There’s more walleye fishermen in Minnesota than anything.”
Pereira said the decision, finalized by DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, was big enough to draw in Gov. Mark Dayton.
“We certainly process stuff like this with the governor’s office,” Pereira said. “He was certainly made fully aware.”
Pereira said the DNR listened to and considered more than 1,800 public comments. No biological concerns eliminated Otter Tail County from consideration — only political ones, he said.
On the other hand, Gull Lake was seen by the DNR as “biologically the best” of the four proposed sites. It has the best potential to produce trophy fish. And the lake is already so busy, he said, lakeside property owners won’t notice the additional traffic.
“Our lakes are Minnesota’s most important natural resource and that’s one reason public participation is so important,” Pereira said.