WILLMAR, Minn.-Now that new regulations will be coming into play for northern pike, discussion is shifting to the possibility of new limits for walleye, panfish and catfish.
Working groups that serve in advisory roles to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for each of these fish species are recommending changes in the limits. They outlined their proposals at the DNR's annual Roundtable Jan. 5 in Bloomington.
Concerns about greater angling pressure is driving much of the discussion. "Our regulations haven't kept up with that ability to be successful,'' said Dave Thompson, a member of the panfish working group and a Battle Lake area resort owner, during the discussions at the Roundtable. He and others pointed to modern electronics, social media communication that puts anglers on fish faster than ever before, wheelhouses that improve mobility and make it possible to spend more time on the ice, and advances in boats as all contributing to the greater pressure on fish.
Discussion on moving from a limit of six to four walleye has been on the table for a few years now. The walleye group is again urging the state to consider a four-fish limit, with one over 20 inches allowed, according to working group member Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids. He said it's time to talk about more than catching a big meal. "Let's go beyond that. What we have to do is conserve fishing in our state,'' he said.
No one raised alarms that walleye fishing is on the skids. Yet two issues were certainly on the minds of anglers at the Roundtable.
A DNR recent study has found a correlation - not necessarily cause and effect - between an increase in water clarity in Mille Lacs Lake with a decline in the number of young walleye. The opacity of Mille Lacs Lake began decreasing before the arrival of zebra mussels, but the arrival of these plankton-filtering invasives is associated with increased clarity in lakes.
Secondly, the results of a recent evaluation of the state's accelerated walleye stocking program during the past 12 years found that walleye numbers have essentially plateaued despite the increased effort.
Of the 254 lakes in the accelerated walleye stocking program, 70 percent saw no improvement.
"Takeaway: Stocking is not the silver bullet,'' said Gary Korsgaden, Park Rapids, a member of the walleye working group. He spoke in favor of a reduced limit aimed at sustaining a catchable, live population.
Neustrom doesn't believe a reduced limit will keep anglers from pursuing walleye in the state. He pointed out that ice fishermen and women continue to make Red Lake and Lake of the Woods their destinations. Both have special regulations and good walleye fishing. He recently watched 270 wheelhouses roll by on Highway 2 in about 3½ hours. "Think they're going up to shoot craps? I doubt it."
The statewide, six-fish limit for walleye has been in place since 1956.
The panfish working group is considering proposals to reduce the current limit of 20 daily sunfish, according to Thompson, working group member. Roundtable participants were surveyed on possibilities that included:
• Keeping a 20-fish limit, with no more than five over 8 inches;
• A bag limit of 15, with no more than five over 8 inches;
• A bag limit of 10, with no more than five over 8 inches;
• Or a bag limit of 10, no size restrictions.
Anglers harvest an estimated 14 million panfish each year, but the size of sunfish is in decline.
The use of a continuous season on panfish with an aggregate limit has been in place since 1954. The bag limit was reduced from 30 to 20 in 2003. The limit was not based on biological principles, according to Thompson.
He said the committee wants to find a limit that will be socially acceptable to anglers. They need to be able to catch larger fish and have a high quality experience to support it, he explained.
He also acknowledged the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all approach. There are metro area lakes where a higher limit would make sense. The lakes will always put out large numbers of small fish. Let young people discover fishing on them with more liberal limits, he argued.
The DNR has used special restrictions aimed at protecting the size of sunfish on some lakes. The use of five- and 10-fish limits has had some success on these waters. Thompson said they tend to do well for a few years but over time, the numbers of larger sunfish tend to plateau.
A resort owner from Big Sand Lake said he believed the reduced bag limit would harm his business, but Thompson differed. Others said they felt that a lack of enforcement was also a problem, with locals as guilty as visitors when it comes to exceeding limits.
The catfish working group is recommending that the catfish limit be increased from five to seven according to Jay Leitch, a group member from Moorhead. Currently, the limit allows a total of five in aggregate, with no more than two being flatheads and one over 24 inches. The working group would allow anglers to keep two flatheads and five channel catfish, with one over 24 inches.
The group would like to see Minnesota and Wisconsin move closer to similar limits on border waters. Wisconsin allows a bag limit of 25.
The catfish working group continues to promote a two-line limit instead of one. It's also hoping an experimental regulation allowing the use of 3-½-foot radius casting nets to collect bait fish will be increased to a 5-foot radius and made a permanent change.
The committee is also urging more research to understand the three catfish species found in the watersheds of the Red, Mississippi and St. Louis rivers. Leitch said they support private, "adopt a catfish" initiatives to raise funds to provide the DNR with electronic tags and receivers for tracking the migrations of these fish.