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Paynesville Press - December 19, 2001

DNR releases bag limit proposals

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has announced that it will not propose changing the statewide bag limits for walleye, northern pike, trout in streams, and largemouth and smallmouth bass. However, the agency will propose lowering limits for crappies, sunfish, lake trout, and catfish beginning with the 2003 fishing season.

Last week's decision came after more than two years of discussion and analysis to see if bag limits for various species needed to be changed. Ron Payer, director of the DNR Fisheries Division, said the agency sought and received unpre-cedented public input on the topic.

"Anglers definitely got a chance to make themselves heard on this issue," Payer said.

The DNR received more than 5,000 comments, held 19 public meetings statewide, and hired the University of Minnesota to conduct a statewide bag limit survey.

"We heard from the entire spectrum - anglers who wanted big reductions in limits, those who wanted no change, and a few who actually wanted us to raise limits," Payer said. "Obviously, not everyone will be happy, but we think we've struck a fair and reasonable balance that does what's best for fish populations, anglers, and Minnesota fishing."

The DNR will propose lowering the daily and possession limit for black and white crappie from 15 to 10, for sunfish from 30 to 20, and for lake trout from three to two. The catfish limit will remain at five, but only two can be flathead catfish and only one, whether flathead or channel, can be over 24 inches long.

According to Payer, the DNR had three objectives when it first decided to review statewide bag limits in 1999: (1) Allow anglers a say in what their bag limits should be; (2) Increase understanding of what bag limits can and can't do to improve fishing and protect fisheries; and (3) Develop a foundation for any future bag limit reviews and potential changes.

"We didn't enter into this with our mind made up that we needed to lower bag limits," Payer said. "We had specific objectives in mind and we believe that we succeeded in meeting all of them."

Surveys regularly show that most anglers are satisfied with fishing in Minnesota. Payer said that the DNR's goal is to continue to provide anglers with a good mix of fish numbers and sizes whenever possible, without hurting the fisheries resource, and that the proposed bag limits will move toward accomplishing that.

"Where we really needed to lower limits to help out the fish, such as crappies and lake trout, we did," he said. "But where the biological data indicated that it wasn't as necessary - such as for bass and walleye - we didn't think bag limit changes were warranted at this time."

An advisory committee representing fishing interests met several times over the past year and a half to provide recommendations to the DNR. DNR officials said they carefully considered the advisory committee's recommendations along with the opinions of citizen anglers, fishing industry representatives, and the biological findings of DNR research scientists.

The committee had several walleye limit recommendations - including staying at six - but eventually agreed to recommend a limit of five walleyes. Most other recommendations were generally in line with the DNR's final decision, except for bass, which the committee recommended be lowered to four.

"Walleye and bass populations are in good shape and that's great news for anglers," Payer said. "We decided to stay with six for walleye and also to keep the bass limit at six."

Payer said that any regulation changes had to be both biologically and socially reasonable.

"To lower a bag limit, there had to be a biological need to do so," he said. "But at the same time, it wouldn't make sense to lower limits beyond what anglers would support, because the only way limits work is if most anglers comply. So we looked at each species and weighed those factors."

Bag limit proposals by species
Walleye: Generally Minnesota's walleye populations are in good shape, especially on many of the large lakes (Rainy, Mille Lacs, Winnibigoshish) that have outstanding populations and, in some cases, special regulations in place to sustain those populations. Though walleye receive heavy angling pressure, the fish is elusive enough for its populations to hold up well to angling pressure and thus doesn't need a lower limit.

Largemouth and smallmouth bass: The populations of these species are doing well and don't require additional protection that would come from lower bag limits. Moreover, many bass anglers already are releasing most of the bass they catch.

Northern pike: DNR biologists are worried about pike populations, which increasingly show fewer large fish due to heavy fishing pressure. However, there was little public support for lowering pike limits or putting in a restrictive statewide slot limit. Biologists believe they can do more for pike by applying special regulations on individual lakes where pike size is declining. The DNR will work with fishing and spearing groups to identify lakes that could produce larger pike and apply special regulations there.

Trout in streams: Brown trout populations are faring extremely well. To increase the size of brown trout in streams, the DNR will work with local anglers in southeastern Minnesota - where most brown trout streams are located - to provide more large trout through regulations and habitat improvements.

Lake trout: Overharvest of this species is of great concern to DNR biologists. Lowering the limit to two had strong statewide support as well as from anglers in the Arrowhead Region, which holds most of Minnesota's roughly 100 lake trout lakes.

Crappie: This is a species of great concern to biologists due to steep declines in the species' average size in many lakes. One of the proposals submitted for public review was to lower the crappie limit from 15 to six, but public support wasn't there, so the agency is proposing a 10-fish bag limit, which surveys showed would be acceptable to most anglers.

Sunfish: This is another group of species having a steady decline in average size. There was little public support for lowering the limit to ten, so the agency is proposing a limit of 20, which most anglers indicated they would accept and which biologists believe may help slow the decline of average size.

Catfish: Of greatest concern with this species is that anglers are now able to take home limits of large flathead and channel catfish, which currently occurs on some trophy rivers such as the Mississippi and the Minnesota. The one-over-24-inches regulation, already in place on the Red River and its tributaries, will help protect those trophy fisheries. Reducing the limit to only two flatheads would also help maintain quality fishing opportunities for that species.

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