Like a lot of Minnesotans did last week, Dominic Schneider of St. Paul wandered onto an east metro lake looking for bluegills. Or sunfish. Generally, in Minnesota, they’re considered one and the same.
Attractions for Schneider included a warm sun overhead, solid ice below and the prospect of putting one of the best-tasting fish in the world in a frying pan.
So tasty are bluegills and sunfish, and so fun to catch — and oftentimes so easy to catch — that more of them are landed by Minnesota anglers each year than any other fish, some 16 million, more or less.
The problem is that many of these fish are smaller than they once were, a dilemma that can be traced to anglers’ (understandable) determination to keep the biggest bluegills and sunnies they can find. Culling this way, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologists say, has led to a widespread stunting of these populations.
“The males of the species are the bigger fish, and when anglers take those fish out of a lake, it encourages the smaller males to move into a lake’s primary breeding areas and put their energies into reproduction, rather than growing,” said DNR area fisheries supervisor Dave Weitzel of Grand Rapids.
Attempting to develop a strategy to increase the average size of what are commonly called sunfish in Minnesota — including pumpkinseed, green sunfish and bluegills, among other species — the DNR in the past 10 years or so has drastically cut anglers’ sunfish limits from 20 to 10 or five in about 60 lakes. (Daily and possession limits of fish are the same.)
The result, said Weitzel, is that sunnies and bluegills in these experimental lakes at least maintained their sizes in lakes with 10-sunnie limits and generally increased their average sizes in lakes with five-fish limits.
Together with a citizens working group, DNR fisheries managers in recent years have considered the biological information affecting sunfish and bluegill sizes and the angling public’s tolerance for significant limit changes for these fish.
Now, assuming DNR leadership grants its approval, the agency this summer will post notices on about 150 select lakes — most in the northern part of the state — advising anglers that, pending the outcomes of public meetings likely to be held this fall in affected counties, the lakes will have either five- or 10-sunnie and bluegill limits imposed beginning in 2021.
The tighter limits have won converts in recent years on lakes where they’ve been imposed experimentally, Weitzel said.
“Some resorts on those lakes were worried the lower limits would affect their businesses,’’ Weitzel said. “Some say they have been affected. But others tell us that clients they lost have been replaced. So in the long run, for them, the regulations have been neutral or positive.’’
An idea was floated some years ago to implement — or try to implement, given the politics associated with fisheries management — statewide changes of sunnie and bluegill limits. Anglers likely would have opposed the idea, and fisheries biologists wouldn’t have supported it, either, because only a relative handful of Minnesota’s thousands of lakes are ideal for growing and sustaining populations of bigger sunnies and bluegills.
Lakes in which relatively stunted populations of these fish exist, meanwhile, generally aren’t harmed by anglers taking 20 specimens home with them.
“It’s biologically appropriate to take that many fish out of lakes with slow growth rates,’’ Weitzel said. “Those lakes have surpluses, and fish that are taken are replaced rapidly. No harm is being done on the lakes by the higher limits.’’
Lakes chosen for the new regulations have common traits. They’re generally moderately sized with middling amounts of nutrients. In summer, they don’t turn green. But neither are they clear. Also, unlike many lakes in the boundary waters and elsewhere in parts of northeast Minnesota, they’re fairly shallow, fairly warm and have plentiful vegetation.
Even in these lakes, assuming special limits are imposed on sunnie and bluegill anglers, fisheries biologists hope anglers exercise restraint during the fishes’ spring nesting seasons.
It’s then that big sunnie and bluegill males guard nests established in a lake’s shallows, making them very vulnerable to anglers’ baits.
For generations of Minnesotans, a wire basket of these beauties hanging over the gunwale of an aluminum boat has been considered a virtual birthright. Even on lakes with special regulations, anglers’ willingness to release at least some of these fish in favor of taking home more diminutive samples might be required to boost sunnie and bluegill sizes substantially.
“Most of what we’ve heard about the proposed regulations has so far been very positive,’’ Weitzel said. “Now, assuming we go forward with the proposal, we’ll hold public meetings in every county where there is an affected lake. Most are in the north, but they’re spread around the state, so that, in the end, we can offer a diversity of fishing options within a relatively short distance of everyone.’’
The list of proposed reduced-limit lakes likely will be released by the DNR within a week or two. Stay tuned.