The Great Minnesota Muskie War is getting ugly. It includes threats, intrigue and vindictive backroom politics that would make Tammany Hall politicians blush.
And it's all over a fish that, according to scientific studies, has no negative effects in the lakes in which it swims.
You may remember this war, started a few years ago by busybodies like West Fargo resident Dave Majkrzak. The owner of property on Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, Majkrzak and some buddies started a campaign to stop the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from stocking muskellunge in that popular body of water. They said muskies, a bigger version of the toothy northern pike, were eating all the walleyes and crappies in the lake. It's not true, but that's what they said.
The original battle even included a lawsuit filed by some Pelican Lake property owners who said one of the reasons for their opposition to muskies was their fear of being attacked while swimming in the lake. Sort of like a "Jaws" deal, one would guess.
Majkrzak and Co. lost that fight-and failed to get an anti-muskie bill through the Minnesota Legislature in the spring of 2016-but succeeded in stopping the DNR from stocking muskies in one of three Otter Tail County lakes (Lizzie, Loon or Franklin) later that summer. The DNR dropped those plans voluntarily as sort of an olive branch, hoping to bring to an end the Great Minnesota Muskie War once and for all.
It did nothing of the sort.
Using pliable and vengeful politicians like Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, the anti-muskie brigade succeeded in getting a wide-ranging bill introduced in the state Senate that would've banned muskie stocking statewide and allowed spearing of the coveted fish, among other malicious things. It was later pared down, predictably, as a targeted stocking ban in Otter Tail County and rolled into the gargantuan omnibus spending bill, an attempt by the crafty Ingebrigtsen to hide his devious work.
"This is really a personal thing with Sen. Ingebrigtsen," said Sen. Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point, Ingebrigtsen's fellow Republican.
Ruud, an active outdoorswoman, opposes the anti-muskie legislation, in part because she says it will hurt fishing tourism in her district and others, like Otter Tail County. But she also says Ingebrigtsen's legislation calls for $100,000 to be taken out of the game and fish fund to pay for a statewide study of Minnesotans' attitude toward fish stocking. It's not to gather scientific data on the effect muskies have on other fish, which has already been done dozens of times, but rather to get the "feelings" of residents. It would be a stacked survey, because Ingebrigtsen knows Minnesota residents love walleyes above all else, almost to the exclusion of other fish-particularly the muskies he hates so much.
"The game and fish fund was almost broke last year and we went to the people and raised their fees on licenses to restock it, and we told them that money would be used for stocking fish and things like that," Ruud said. "And now we're going to take $100,000 out of there to find out how people feel about certain fish? I just think that's wrong. We have so many other things that money could go toward."
Logic and data have never been the strong suits of anti-muskie folks. In their attempt to co-opt the lake association members of West Battle Lake in Otter Tail County into supporting their agenda, anti-muskie zealots were accused of changing the association's website to reflect their beliefs and threatening one association member.
The Minnesota Muskie Alliance posted a copy of an email on its Facebook page in which lake association member Jerry Horgen says he called the sheriff to report a phone threat made by an anti-muskie activist. The activist later confronted Horgen with heated words at a cafe in Battle Lake, according to the email.
It's insanity, sparked by a fish that is stocked in only two lakes in Otter Tail County-which remain two of the best all-around fishing lakes in the county.
That leads Shawn Kellett of the Twin Cities chapter of Muskies Inc. to believe the Great Minnesota Muskie War isn't about muskies at all. He says, in the end, it's going to evolve into a fight over who has access to the lakes and who controls them. Kellett says some lakeshore owners want to turn public water into "their own personal swimming pools."
"This has nothing to do with fish and everything to do with power and control," Kellett said. "This isn't about biology or stocking muskies. It's about a few people trying to gain control."
The legislation has moved to the House of Representatives, where its fate is unpredictable. Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls, whose district includes Pelican Lake and part of West Battle Lake, supports it. Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria, whose district includes the other part of West Battle Lake, is opposed.
"The House has to be our stop-gap on this," Ruud said. "They have to get it out. This would be a bad thing if it passes."