We have all heard it if we’ve been around Minnesota’s great fishing culture long enough: “You should have seen it back in the day.”
As a native Minnesotan, I have fished many of our lakes and kept my share of fish. As a young fisherman, I saw how subsistence fishing affects our lakes and decided to stop keeping fish.
If we don’t soon adopt this as the norm, we will continue to see fish population plunges in lakes like Mille Lacs.
Whether you agree with limit numbers and possession limits, it is clear that subsistence fishing has an effect on lakes. Glendalough State Park is home to Annie Battle Lake. The lake was previously privately owned, with no public access, and was donated to the state in 1992 when the area became a state park. Immediate overfishing led the DNR to close the lake to angling from 1993 to 1997.
I had the privilege of fishing the park the first year Annie Battle reopened to angling, when I was 10 years old. Glendalough was my family’s favorite state park, and I fished the same stretches of the creeks and lakes in the park from 1997 to 2013. Over that time the fish population changed as a direct result of subsistence fishing that the lake had never before seen. The first year we visited, my dad told me plainly: “This is what it was like back in the day.” The last time I fished the lake, it was like any other Minnesota basin lake — unspectacular fishing for small panfish and a few largemouth bass. This change occurred despite tighter regulations than apply on the average lake.
Of course, Mille Lacs is more complex than Annie Battle and on a larger scale, but do we really doubt that keeping 1.2 million pounds of walleye, as we did in 1992, has a lasting effect on the fish population? As fishing popularity remains high and as our population increases, we need to adjust our expectations for fishing in the future. We can define fishing success as keeping a limit; we can choose to turn a blind eye to “sportsmen” breaking the possession limit regulations, keeping their limit every weekend. Or we can approach fishing with a new model — of recreational fishing as the norm — and give up subsistence fishing as a thing of the past that lakes could only support when our population was smaller.
As American citizens, we do not have the “right” to fish, but the privilege. The only people who have a right to fish Mille Lacs are the Ojibwe and Dakota Nations who signed a treaty with our government in 1837 that guarantees their rights to fish and hunt on the lands they ceded to the United States. This right was upheld by our Supreme Court in 1999. They have worked with our DNR to determine reasonable limits that are monitored by DNR fisheries staff each year.
We have crashed the population of walleyes in Leech Lake, Upper Red and now Mille Lacs. I have fished Lake of the Woods for the last 10 years and have seen firsthand the type of fishing pressure and regulation bending that happens. If we’re not careful, it will be next. We saw what time off did for Red Lake. I witnessed this in 2005 when fishing for crappies on Upper Red. It was the best walleye fishing through the ice I have ever experienced.
Let’s voluntarily give up our privilege to keep fish and maintain catch-and-release recreational fishing so that future generations can see what it was like “back in the day.” Sure, they won’t have the privilege of taking home a walleye to eat, but think back to your favorite fishing memories and look at photos on the wall.
My guess is they are for the most part related to fish-catching, not fish-eating.
Peter Blake lives in Minneapolis.