Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Reductions in fishing bag limits for walleyes and panfish

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but sometimes it doesn’t need to do so. Consider an ice fishing photo I recently saw accompanying a story about said topic. A fellow was sitting in a portable shelter, which he’d towed on the ice with a snowmobile that also appeared to be carrying a huge gear box. Propped on the ice in front of the fisherman were not one, but two electronic fish finders. Dangling from the end of the fishing rod in his hands was a 12-inch perch. My thoughts about the image were summed up in one sentence: That’s a lot of gear just to catch a perch.

Anglers have long been attracted to bright and shiny baubles. You might say it is easier for a tackle merchant to catch an angler’s wallet than it is for the same angler to catch a fish. For sure, no one in Minnesota has ever gone broke by overestimating the gullibility of anglers.

The latest gadget to make a splash is the underwater drone. This baby swims like a fish underwater, has sonar and camera capability, is equipped with a fish-attracting light and can even deliver your bait to the fish. I don’t know if underwater drones will help anyone catch more fish, but rest assured the anglers who get one will also buy a bigger gear box to bring it along on their fishing excursions. The cash register rings and the tackle merchant smiles.

Some worry that all of the stuff now available for fishing has created a generation of “super anglers” wielding heretofore unknown predatory powers. They cite a litany of better boats, better electronics, winter wheelhouses and, above all, instant communication technology. The latter allows fools with phones to boast in real time about their fishing success, too often creating a fishing frenzy as linked-in hooksters swarm at the supposed hot spot, kinda like cormorants.

Now, citing concerns about so-called super anglers and social media tell-alls, some biologists and anglers are calling for reductions in fishing bag limits for walleyes, as well as panfish such as crappies, sunfish and yellow perch. To be sure, these calls are intended to open a discussion about reducing bag limits. Typically, significant changes to fishing regulations don’t happen quickly. Nor should they.

The concerns seem to be primarily coming from north-central Minnesota’s lake country, which has long been the state’s hotbed of emerging angling technological advances. Technology continues to change the way people fish and the distribution of fishing pressure. But is there scientific evidence that these changes are negatively affecting walleye or panfish populations? And if they are, will reducing bag limits improve diminished fish populations?

The questions above aren’t new. Generally, fisheries biologists try to answer them any time they research making changes to bag limits, whether on an individual body of water or, as in this case, on a statewide or regional basis. Very often, fisheries biologists tell us that simply lowering a bag limit will do little to improve a fishery, because most anglers only occasionally limit out. For a bag limit to be effective, it has to hurt.

Reducing the walleye bag limit from six fish to four, which was discussed at the recent DNR Roundtable, stings, but it doesn’t hurt. Sure, it will be inconvenient to stop at four on days when the fish are biting. And you may not return home with enough walleyes to feed your family after a long drive to some weekend fishing destination up north. But if we truly intended to protect fish populations, perhaps a bag limit of two walleyes might be in order. That would be a limit that hurt. In fact, it might hurt so much that some of us would think twice before making a long drive to go walleye fishing. If we chose to stay home, then, economically speaking, the pain would spread.

We already have a plethora of walleye special regulations in place with the intent of protecting the state’s most popular fisheries. This has been the approach Minnesota has taken with individual waters management over the last 30 years. Part of the reason for developing regulations tailored to specific water bodies was because biologists told us that one-size-fits-all statewide regs didn’t work very well in a state blessed with an abundance and diversity of fisheries. It is fair to ask: Has something changed?

Individual waters management seems to have worked pretty well on most waterways. Mechanisms are in place to tweak or even drop ineffective regulations. The drawback is that the average angler is confronted with a bewildering array of rules to follow, which may change from one body of water to the next. In that respect, the one-size-fits-all approach is far easier for everyone from the diehard to casual angler to understand.

While this writer has long supported conservative regulations and bold steps to improve Minnesota fisheries, I sometimes wonder if DNR decision-makers have become somewhat schizophrenic with bag limits. They are looking at reducing some bag limits, but are increasing others. The popular, protective regulation for Mille Lacs smallmouth bass was relaxed last year to create a catch-n-keep fishery to make up for the loss of walleye fishing. On the North Shore, Minnesota Outdoor News has reported the DNR is considering the fate of its popular and decades-old Kamloops rainbow trout stocking program, presumably because the hatchery fish might interbreed with wild rainbow (steelhead) stocks. At the same time, the agency says it may create a kill fishery for steelhead, thus replacing a long-standing, and also popular, catch-and-release rule. So steelhead stocks might be harming Kamloops stocking, but are healthy enough to support a kill fishery?

Reducing walleye and panfish bag limits is a worthy discussion topic, but it needs to be well-publicized and open to all. Hopefully, it will include good science about how and where in the state current angling practices are threatening walleye and panfish populations. Without such information in hand, it is difficult to make a decision that will truly make a difference for the fish or the people who fish for them.

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