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Legislators work to lift spearing ban

In 1988, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources launched a ban on winter spearing of northern pike on Cass Lake.

The ban was originally set to expire after 10 years, but it remains in force.

Last year, a fish and game bill to lift the ban passed the Minnesota House and Senate, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it. This year, the bills to lift the spearing ban are sponsored by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, and Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji.

Persell said the bill could be considered in the expected upcoming special legislative session.

Persell cited a DNR letter declaring "social pressures" for the DNR's determination to retain the Cass Lake spearing ban. However, Leech Lake Tribal members are allowed to both spear northerns and set nets in Cass Lake.

"This issue is being driven by a minority of outside interests that believe allowing non-Indian people to spear on Cass Lake is going to be detrimental to muskies and northerns," Persell said.

"There's a group that seems to want to say, 'This is our lake, and you can't do anything on it without our approval,'" Carlson said. "No, it's everybody's lake."

Persell said the DNR is bowing to special interest groups, namely those who want to catch trophy muskies and northerns. Two of these groups are Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance and Muskies Inc., both represented by Kevin Cochran of Bemidji, who is co-chair of the MMPA and vice president for Lake Bemidji and Cass Lake Muskies Inc. Cochran teaches kindergarten at J.W. Smith Elementary School and is a muskie fishing guide.

In a Web posting, Cochran listed 39 Cass Lake area businesses by name, name of owners and phone numbers. These businesses, he said in the posting, support lifting the ban.

"If you support muskies/pike this is a list of businesses that don't," he wrote.

Cochran also pointed out in capital letters that the 2010 bill had an amnesty clause added by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Anoka. The clause stated that anyone who speared a muskie by mistake would be exempt from prosecution if he or she reported the incident and turned the fish over to a conservation officer within 24 hours. Cochran interpreted the clause as making spearing muskies legal.

However, the clause is not in the current bill, Persell said.

According to DNR sampling, Persell said, the Cass Lake populations of both muskies and northerns are good. The Leech Lake Tribal DNR maintains a fish hatchery and stocks muskies, as well as other fish that are forage for muskies and northerns.

Carlson said he sponsored the Senate bill because when he was campaigning, his constituents asked him to work on lifting the spearing ban on Cass Lake.

"It's obviously a bipartisan issue. It's a local issue," Carlson said. "The people in Cass Lake have been trying to get spearing back. It was what I thought was noncontroversial."

Cochran said 19,200 people have told legislators they don't want the ban lifted.

"I gave (Carlson) hundreds of signatures of people who don't want it lifted, his constituents," Cochran said.

He said he posted the list of businesses that support lifting the ban on his website, but he wasn't asking anyone to boycott those businesses. He said the posting was simply for informational purposes.

"We all have become galvanized - those of us who support the bill - by the use of incorrect statements and the exclusion of information by those supporting the ban," Persell said.

Cochran said Carlson emailed him describing the posting as "Blacklist of Cass Lake businesses" and demanded a retraction. So, Cochran said, he took the posting down.

He said people come from all over the world to try to catch trophy fish in area lakes.

Cochran said he suggested a compromise to Carlson, but received no response. Cochran said he would endorse lifting the Cass Lake spearing ban if the law would put both muskies and 27- to 40-inch northern off limits.

"We want to protect the northern pike, and we want to protect the muskie," Cochran said. "The Legislature is essentially tying the hands of the DNR."

Persell, who is an aquatic biologist, suggested a different compromise: lift the ban for five or 10 years, sample the populations of muskies and northerns and see if spearing has any impact on fish numbers.