Ten years ago, panfish anglers in southeastern Stearns County were thrilled with the results of a reduced, 10-fish bag limit on Lake Carnelian that revived the lake’s exceptional population of big-slab bluegills.
In a 2006 snapshot taken by the DNR, a whopping 35 percent of Carnelian’s sunfish had matured to at least 8 inches, with many approaching 10 inches. In other lakes, only 1 to 2 percent of the sunfish population would be 8 inches or longer.
“It was phenomenal,” said Mike Raetz, a professional fishing guide and bluegill fanatic from St. Cloud, who frequently fished Carnelian.
But the success proved unsustainable. Even as the special 10-fish bag limit established in 1994 was further reduced in 2007 to five sunfish a day, the lake was pounded so hard by anglers that Raetz and others wrote it off. The big bluegills were gone.
The same quandary of shrinking panfish populations is now driving a statewide review into bag limits and other restrictions that many panfish lovers say are needed to counter changing times. Ice fishing pressure has become extreme, fish-finding electronics are ever-advanced and social media users are broadcasting where the fish are biting.
“If you’re the fish … there’s no secrets anymore about where you are,” said Dave Thompson, a Minnesota lake resort owner and spokesman for the DNR Panfish Workgroup.
The big question is how far panfish anglers are willing to cut back — if at all — to let the fish grow.
When the citizen advisory group meets early next month at Cabela’s in Rogers, it will embark in earnest on a two- to three-year review with DNR fisheries biologists to improve the size and abundance of sunnies and crappies via regulation and other resource management tools.
Thompson said the work group is open-minded but initially has been discussing an “ethical” reduction in statewide bag limits across the board. Well … not so fast. A new study by the U indicates that a strong 65 to 75 percent of state panfish anglers think current bag limits of 20 sunfish, 10 crappies and 20 yellow perch are “about right.”
Attitudes like that are tough to overcome at the state capitol, Johnson said.
Moreover, panfish specialists like Raetz believe selective harvest regulations on known productive lakes — including catch-and-release limitations, limits of one panfish over a certain size or shorter angling seasons to protect spawning fish — would be most effective.
“We have the resource, we’re just not managing it correctly,” Raetz said. “It’s going to make a lot of people mad, but we need changes.”
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira said the state’s “bread and butter” fishing resource will get a long, thorough review and the agency may need a couple of years before it’s ready to suggest changes.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all proposition,” Pereira said.
At the recent DNR roundtable of invited anglers and hunters, the sustainable harvest of panfish was the hottest issue at a small-group session that included advisory workgroup discussions on walleye, pike, muskie, bass and catfish. One audience member summed up the panfish dilemma by saying anglers “want what they want but they don’t want to give up anything to get it.”
Crappies are king
Minnesotans harvest a combined 20 million sunnies, crappies and yellow perch per year, by far the most of any category of sport fish. According to preliminary results from the $14,000 U study of panfishing opinions, attitudes and preferences, crappies are the favorite. Of respondents to the mail survey of resident anglers age 18 and over, 55 percent “strongly prefer” crappies, while 37 percent strongly prefer sunfish and only 13 percent strongly prefer perch.
While nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the overall Minnesota panfishing experience, only 39 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with panfish sizes.
The almost-completed study indicates Minnesotans like the bag limits where they are. But it also contains various measures of support for bag limits, length limits, slot limits, one-over limits and zone-based regulations — if they can improve quality and quantity of panfish. In addition, the study’s authors are promising to differentiate between metro and non-metro attitudes and preferences — more data that could bring about stratified regulations.
Johnson said the final solution will reflect a divergence of conservation values. In the long run, he said, more frequent reviews of panfish regulations will be needed to accommodate for changes in panfish angling participation and technology. If 2018 is the year changes are adopted, he said, it will have been about 20 years since the last big revisions were made.
And 2018 isn’t a cinch.
“It needs to be looked at more often,” he said.