Robby Pollreis still bristles when reminded of local hecklers who protested the state-sponsored introduction of muskies into the Sauk River chain of lakes four years ago.
Angry that their local lakes had been chosen by the Department of Natural Resources as a venue for the expansion of muskie fishing, the protesters minced no words — some were four-letter words — as Pollreis, a pro fisherman from Avon who runs a fishing guide service, and other volunteers helped the DNR release the first 1,000 hatchery-raised fingerlings into Horseshoe and Cedar Island lakes, about 25 miles southwest of St. Cloud.
"I was with my 4-year-old grandaughter,'' Pollreis said.
When it comes to fish feuds in Minnesota, ugliness and intensity rank high when the DNR seeks to expand the range of muskies. DNR regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes told a crowd at the agency's statewide "roundtable'' Friday in Brooklyn Center that the "not in my lake" opposition will slow — but not stop — the current plan to stock muskies in five new lakes or lake chains by 2020.
In the latest conflicts involving Gull Lake near Brainerd, Big Marine Lake near Scandia and three possible sites in Otter Tail County, the controversy has reverberated with anti-stocking resolutions adopted by many lake associations, one county board and at least two city councils.
Drewes said the agency will now retrench its education and outreach efforts and scrap a previous deadline of Feb. 1 for advancing a muskie-stocking recommendation to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who has final say. Now it could be summer before a decision is made, he said. Stocking could begin this fall.
"We don't get a lot of opposition to walleye stocking,'' Drewes deadpanned during a roundtable question-and-answer session where the tension between lakeshore property owners and strident muskie anglers was evident. "Muskies are really the flashpoint species.''
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira drew loud applause when he ended the session by declaring the agency is justified in expanding muskie fishing opportunities and confident it can do so without damaging other fisheries.
"Our waters are public waters,'' Pereira exclaimed.
"Amen to that!'' a muskie proponent shouted.
Drewes said surveys show statewide support for the DNR's plan to improve chances for catching a trophy muskellunge. But in local areas where muskie stocking has been proposed, public opinion is "a very loud, very strong no,'' he said.
That includes the Disabled Veterans Rest Camp on Big Marine Lake, a veteran-owned refuge that hosts more than 12,000 visitors a year. The president of the camp's board of directors wrote to Landwehr, proclaiming the camp's unanimous opposition to muskie stocking in solidarity with the Scandia City Council and Big Marine Lake Association.
"The hasty plan to stock muskies in Big Marine Lake will forever change the rest, recovery, and recreation of the thousands of veterans that come to our camp,'' the letter said.
Opponents of stocking cite the threat of muskies eating other fish and upsetting existing fish populations. They also cite the risk of increased boat traffic spreading aquatic invasive species, and they dislike that the fish themselves are non-native to waters where they are being introduced.
Their oft-repeated questions to the DNR include: Why do we need more muskie lakes? How can you possibly reverse unintended consequences? How can the special interests of muskie zealots outweigh citizens who have cared for a lake's ecology over the years?
DNR officials say they've also fought misinformation. Scare campaigns by lakeshore property owners have included false claims that muskies endanger young swimmers, decimate walleyes and invite throngs of out-of-town anglers in high-powered boats.
Pereira said Friday that Minnesota's own research, recently revalidated, shows no negative impacts when muskies are introduced to lakes via DNR stocking programs. Most of the state's best walleye lakes also include muskies, he said.
Increased interest in muskie fishing is the basis for the DNR's long-range plan. A 2007 survey estimated that 14 percent of resident anglers target muskies, with another 18 percent of non-muskie anglers moderately or very interested in fishing for them.
Including hybrid tiger muskies, the large predators now roam about 35 percent of surface waters in the state. The DNR stocks muskies in about 45 percent of lakes where the fish swim, and the Legislature in 2014 increased the legal catch limit to 54 inches.
David Majkrzak, a member of the Pelican Lake Property Owners Association in Otter Tail County, said the DNR's approach on muskie stocking is "wishful thinking.'' He said there's no data to correlate with the new minimum-length requirement that will keep all muskies in the water until they are monster-sized. And how can the DNR predict outcomes when invasive species are altering plant growth and forage fish levels?
"Tigers exist with lambs, too, but at the mercy of the tiger,'' Majkrzak said.
The conflict also is spiced with resentment. Stocking opponents have questioned the tactics of Muskies Inc., a group that has thrown its weight behind the DNR proposal. In October, Muskies Inc. chartered a bus to Fergus Falls for members to attend a community meeting the DNR held. Muskies Inc. members hung banners and wore orange lapel pins.
"It was like a Chicago union hall meeting,'' Majkrzak said.
Eric Bakke, first vice president of Muskies Inc. in the Twin Cities, said the group is passionate but not extremist or overly influential. He said the pattern of opposition by lake associations is all too familiar.
"It's an entitlement mentality,'' Bakke said. "Well, it's not their lake.''