Since the pandemic's onset, the words "follow the science" have been spoken so many times by so many people on so many sides of so many issues, the directive has all but lost its meaning. On the mask/no mask issue alone, follow the science means one thing one day and another the next.
Yet when it comes to how many walleyes a Minnesotan should be allowed in his or her possession, the science, as it were, seems quite clear.
The present threshold of six is on solid footing because on the rare occasion an angler actually catches and keeps that many walleyes from a given lake or river, walleyes remaining in that water won't suffer for the loss.
One reason is that very few anglers actually catch six walleyes. In a 1996 study on Lake Winnibigoshish, for instance, 14,000 anglers were surveyed and only about 140 claimed to have caught limits of six walleyes.
Secondly, the daily limit of fish caught in Minnesota is also the possession limit of fish. Meaning if you were fortunate enough to catch six walleyes in a day, you could not possess another six until at least the next day, and then only if the original six were eaten, given away or otherwise legally disposed of.
This restriction is designed to dissuade anglers from taking multiple six-walleye limits when a lake experiences a "hot bite," which happens occasionally.
Consider also that the state's 10 largest walleye lakes, which produce about 40% of walleyes caught by Minnesota anglers each year, already are almost exclusively governed by four-walleye limits.
These include Cass, Kabetogama, Lake of the Woods, Leech, Mille Lacs, Pepin, Rainy, Upper Red, Vermilion and Winnibigoshish. On each of these, with the exception of "Winnie," where the limit remains six, the limit is already four, as it is on approximately 100 other smaller Minnesota lakes.
So, if the state's six-walleye limit isn't hurting anything, why are some legislators, including Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) itself, in favor again this legislative session of cutting the limit from six to four walleyes?
In fact, the limit likely would have to be reduced to three or possibly even two — which no one is in favor of — to have a measurable, positive impact on walleye populations.
DNR fisheries chief Brad Parsons acknowledges the lack of scientific justification for a change, but says the proposal reflects a growing feeling among many anglers that four walleyes is a sufficient limit.
Thus, rather than a science-based regulation adjustment, Parsons and other supporters of the change say the idea is socially based.
Put another way, the lower limit is what the angling public, or an assumed portion thereof, feels good about.
Yet regulation changes of this kind represent a slippery slope most fish and wildlife managers dare not step foot on.
Fishing, hunting and trapping seasons, as well as bag limits, and participation times, generally are established by scientific means so that only a game or furbearer population's surplus, or a portion thereof, is harvested, leaving its brood stock to replicate year after year.
In some instances, social considerations enter into and even dominate this matrix.
Wolves are one example. Within limits, they could be hunted and/or trapped in Minnesota without harming their population. Out west, grizzlies could also be hunted within limits without harming their population.
Yet social considerations (so far) prevent hunting of these species.
"Another reason to go to four walleyes," Parsons said, "is to be proactive. We know our fisheries are under increasing pressure, and that angling methods, including increased use of electronics, are improving all the time. So why not do something before problems arise?"
In 2005, a group called the Minnesota Walleye Advisory Committee, founded by ex-DNR fisheries biologist Dick Sternberg, was formed to advocate for intensified walleye management. The group still exists and plays an important advisory role to the DNR.
Most council members are in favor of going to four walleyes, said committee member Jim Justesen. Reasons are varied, but primary is a belief that the increasingly sophisticated top tier of walleye anglers is pressuring the resource too much too often.
Justesen is among "two or three'' committee members who oppose a change.
"There's no scientific evidence to support it," he said. "It's walleye stocking, and our stocking strategies, that can affect our walleye populations, and it's on those that we should be focusing, not the limit."
Council member and fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids disagrees.
"Look at the electronics used today and the number of anglers on our lakes who know how to fish very well,'' he said. "There's a lot of pressure on the resource, and not just in summer, but winter, too, with the advent of wheel houses. If we don't do something, it's just going to go downhill. Do we wait five years or do it now? Let's do something before it become a problem.''
Retired DNR Northwest Region fisheries manager Henry Drewes counters that if a walleye-limit change is made it should be done honestly.
"We (the DNR) generally make regulatory changes that intend to make a difference," Drewes said. "We identify problems and define objectives we want to achieve with a specific regulatory change. Going from six to four walleyes, except perhaps on 1 percent of Minnesota walleye lakes, isn't going to change anything. It won't make a difference. People should know that up front.''
Retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist and "Minnesota Bound" television host Ron Schara acknowledges the lack of scientific justification for a change. But the proliferation of social media can flood anglers to a lake experiencing a hot bite, he says.
"I've seen lakes where walleyes are biting left and right and the next thing you know there are hordes of boats on those lakes," he said.
Maybe, acknowledges Gary Korsgaden of Park Rapids. But if individual lakes need reduced walleye limits, the DNR already has authority to act.
"Four walleyes is a feel-good thing that has no scientific support," Korsgaden said. "I'm worried we're headed to a point where it will be politically incorrect, or socially unacceptable, to keep fish and eat them. And that bothers me."