The 2018 Legislature could prove to be an apex predator of Minnesota muskies if a new bill introduced by a key committee chairman succeeds in depleting the big fish from numerous lakes.
The proposed anti-muskie law authored by state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, would blow up the long-range muskie management plan of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The agency has heralded muskie fishing as the fastest-growing type of angling in the state, and DNR biologists and hatchery personnel have worked to expand muskellunge fishing opportunities.
Ingebrigtsen, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said the DNR hasn't been listening to a large constituency of more traditional anglers who believe muskie expansion is happening at the expense of sunnies, crappies and walleyes — an assertion rejected by DNR science.
Ingebrigtsen, who lives on one of 1,001 lakes in Otter Tail County, said his bill will get hearings. On Friday, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, introduced companion legislation in the Minnesota House.
"There's been a social turn,'' Ingebrigtsen said. "Enough is enough.''
Muskie advocates say the proposed legislation is a setback for a species that other states are increasingly protecting as a valuable draw for anglers. They say Ingebrigtsen's bill is based on the unscientific notion that the beastly muskie — capable of growing to 5 feet in length — suppresses or derails other fish populations.
"They've got no idea what they are going to lose,'' said Aaron Meyer, co-chairman of the Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance.
Ingebrigtsen's bill is co-authored by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and has bipartisan support from Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, the previous Senate majority leader. It calls for muskie-stocking prohibitions, liberal harvest of muskies and a new muskie study.
Here's what Ingebrigtsen's bill proposes:
• Stop DNR from introducing muskies to waters not previously stocked with the fish. Any savings realized from the ban must be used for walleye stocking.
• Force DNR to drop its statewide, 54-inch minimum size limit for keeping a muskie. On "nonmuskellunge'' waters, anglers could keep any muskie 20 inches or longer. The term "nonmuskellunge" applies to waters where "muskellunge are not indigenous'' or where they are stocked by the DNR.
• Allow spearing of muskies on "nonmuskellunge'' waters.
• Empower counties to dictate what species of fish the DNR can stock within county boundaries.
• Impose a five-year moratorium on the DNR against stocking muskies anywhere in Otter Tail County.
• The DNR must convene a stakeholder group "to examine the effect of muskellunge'' and spend $50,000 on a related study.
The legislation is friendly to an anti-muskie movement in Otter Tail County, one of the places where muskie fishing first took hold in Minnesota in the 1960s. Two years ago, county residents successfully campaigned to place Otter Tail County off limits to the DNR's once-ambitious muskie stocking expansion plan.
Six months ago, the county's dislike for the species re-emerged in a county board resolution that called on the DNR to stop stocking muskies in Pelican Lake, West Battle Lake, Beers Lake or any other lake or river in Otter Tail County.
The resolution called for an independent study of DNR muskie stocking, repeating old assertions that muskies aren't native to Otter Tail County and could be adversely affecting "the natural fishing community.''
The resolution emphasized that Otter Tail tourism depends on walleyes and that muskie anglers are but a small percent of county taxpayers. Earlier this month, the City of Battle Lake adopted a resolution in support of the county's position.
"We further support elimination of protection for muskies in West Battle Lake and allowing muskies to be harvested as Northern Pike,'' the city said in its resolution.
"People come here to fish panfish and walleyes,'' Mayor Gene Kelm said in an interview. "That's our tourist attraction, and we need to protect it.''
Ingebrigtsen said his bill will leave muskie anglers with "plenty of opportunity'' to catch fish.
But Paul Hartman, founder of Minnesota Muskie Guides Association and the organizer of a large, annual muskie exposition in St. Paul, said the DNR already has acquiesced on its muskie expansion plans because of the pressure coming from Ingebrigtsen's Senate district and other "no more muskies'' enclaves.
The agency has all but dropped its plan to add eight new muskie lakes by 2020 under a stocking initiative that received years of public review. Five lakes were added, including a muskie restoration project on Gull Lake in Nisswa, before the plan ran out of steam.
In addition, muskie proponents say that lowering the minimum size limit to 20 inches will greatly reduce the chances of catching a trophy. The DNR manages muskies at relatively low densities, and research has found over the years that the species has difficulty rebounding from exploitive catch rates.
"It's unfortunate that politicians are increasingly becoming game changers on how things happen in the DNR's fisheries office,'' Hartman said. "If those are the people who dictate policy you can no longer expect to have quality resource experiences.''
Hartman and Meyer both said it's senseless for the Legislature to purchase new muskie research.
"Studies have been done to death,'' Hartman said.
One such DNR study of 40 muskie-stocked lakes showed that panfish were not affected and that walleye catch rates improved or remained the same, Hartman said.
DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira had no comment on the new muskie legislation. His office actively manages muskies in about 100 water bodies that represent 21 percent of the state's total fishing acreage.
Of 90 waters stocked with pure-strain muskies, 47 are not considered natural muskie lakes and are maintained through stocking. Another 50 waters in Minnesota contain muskies but are not actively managed and carry low likelihoods of catching a fish.