Bill would reduce number of Minnesota lakes with northern pike special regulations
It would be ideal if everyone who took to the water in a boat or an ice shack was looking for the same experience.
Unfortunately, that isn't the case and, because of that wide range of wants and expectations, a change might be brewing in how Minnesota DNR Fisheries officials manage the state's northern pike lakes.
Currently there are 115 Minnesota lakes that are governed by special northern pike regulations. In the Bemidji area the most common special regulation on the 13 lakes which stray from the statewide limit is a protected 24 to 36-inch slot. Anglers are also allowed to keep one pike over 36 inches.
The regulation is designed to lessen the harvest of the larger pike and increase the likelihood of an angler catching something besides hammer handles now and in the future.
In the Northwest DNR Region, special northern pike regulations are in effect on 45 lakes and that figure represents more than one-third of all the lakes in Minnesota which are governed by special pike regulations.
"The regulations we have had in place for years, such as the slot on Medicine and North Twin, have been successful," said DNR Northwest Region Fisheries Supervisor Henry Drewes.
"And with the newer special regulation lakes we are still evaluating the results."
While beneficial to the overall pike fishery and welcomed by many anglers, some people believe that state officials are overstepping their bounds. They contend that limiting the pike harvest on so many lakes has negatively impacted the ability to enjoy the full extent of the opportunities those lakes have to offer.
Spear fishermen, for example, have no way of determining if the pike they are watching in their hole is 23.5 inches or 24 inches. Nor can they tell if the fish measures 37 inches or 35 inches.
Many spearers also are upset about the spearing ban on Cass Lake and that regulation, as much as anything else, has sparked this second look as to how DNR officials manage their lakes.
"It's arguable," said Minnesota Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. "Some folks talk about (the special regulations) in a good way and some in a way that is not too good."
Drewes hears from more people representing the former stance than the latter.
"In my tenure with the state the two pieces of the fish management scheme we hear most about from the public is to do something about the small pike and to do something about the small panfish," Drewes said. "On many of the lakes with special northern pike regulations the enactment of the rules was at the request of the local lake associations. They wanted us to try and do something about the small pike.
"The only tool we have (that has proven to be effective) is the length limit," Drewes continued. "We have tried expanding bag limits and that didn't work because no one wanted to keep small northern pike. And netting the small pike has been a failure. The only thing that has worked is a length limit."
There currently are bills in the Minnesota Senate and House which will drastically curtail the DNR's ability to manage its northern pike lakes.
A few years ago DNR officials joined forces with representatives of many sportsmen's groups, lake associations and others who have a stake in the northern pike fishery to discuss how best to manage the species.
After the conference it was determined that the DNR should have the authority to expand the number of special northern pike regulation lakes to as high as 125 statewide and in 2020 the practice would be revisited.
A year later, however, representatives of the Minnesota Darkhouse Association decided to break away from the group and wanted to see the number of lakes trimmed in half, according to Drewes.
"A special interest group was pressing the Legislature to take away the wishes of the public and take away the only proven tool we have to manage pike," Drewes said.
"Our goal is not to do away with spearing. It is to deal with the imbalance of the northern pike population."
"The Darkhouse Association members, statewide, are upset about their (inability) to spear and that has led to the debate about slot limits," said Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji. "Quite honestly, I don't have a problem with what the DNR does. I think they have done a wonderful job of enhancing the resources but I also can see where the spearers are coming from.
"The number of lakes (with northern pike special regulations) started at 30 and then expanded to 60. From there it went to (a maximum of) 125," Carlson continued. "There are frustrations from some as to where it will stop. We have to have some limits."
"In my involvement (as a state representative) I've tried to be supportive of the DNR," Persell said. "But the bottom line with this issue is the Legislature felt we were sold a bill of goods. There was a limit of 60 lakes (with northern pike special regulations) and now it (jumped) to 125 by folks who came to a meeting.
"Do these folks represent all the folks' desires of fish management? I don't know. At the Legislature we bring the experts down to testify to us and we listen to them," Persell continued. "I think we need to look at all of the issues with natural resource management and put it all on the table."
The Legislature is looking at this issue by introducing bills in the Senate and House which would reduce the number of lakes with experimental pike regulations. Exactly what that figure would be has not been determined.
"My understanding is that the original the number of lakes with special northern pike regulations (was limited) to 60," Persell said. "And now it has morphed to 125. I think it is reasonable to have the slot sizes on a number of lakes but the question is - what is that number?"
"There are several proposals that will be ironed out in conference committee with the Senate version," said Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji. "Slot limits, two lines and spearing are still issues being debated. We should have a bill going to the governor soon."
Among the items which probably will be included in the bill is removing the spearing ban on Cass Lake. Both Persell and Carlson have been asked by their constituents to open Cass Lake to spearing by the general public. Currently only tribal members are allowed to spear on Cass Lake.
"(Reducing) the number of northern pike special regulation lakes is in the omnibus fish and game bill but I am going to sit on the fence on this one," Carlson said. "I am more concerned about honoring my constituents' wishes to open spearing on Cass Lake."
If the bill passes into law and the DNR has to cease management on half of the current special regulation northern pike lakes, the fishery and the fishing will suffer, according to Drewes.
"The goal of the 24 to 36-inch slot is not to produce a trophy fishery," he said. "Instead it is to increase the number of quality pike by shifting the biomass of the population. Anglers enjoy catching larger fish and pike are cannibals. The only thing that will eat a 20-inch pike is a larger pike.
"The northern pike is one of the top predators in a lake and when the population is out of balance it is not good for the fish community," Drewes added. "If this bill goes through it will diminish the northern pike fisheries management in the Bemidji area."
To offer an opinion on the subject, contact Persell at 651-296-5516 (rep.john.persell @house.mn), Hancock at 651-296-4265 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Carlson at 651-296-4913 (sen.john. email@example.com).