By Sam Cook
Forum News Service
DEER RIVER, Minn. - Standing in waders, hip-deep in a lake near Deer River, Bill Powell flipped two modest scoops of spottail shiner minnows into a holding tank on his boat Wednesday afternoon.
“Kind of pathetic,” said Powell, 50, who owns Fred’s Bait in Deer River.
That’s the prevailing sentiment about the critical shortage of the prized spottail shiners across north-central Minnesota this spring. The dearth of spottails affects thousands of anglers who fish hundreds of lakes from Grand Rapids to Deer River to Bemidji. Up here, the spottail is king, especially in the first few weeks of the fishing season.
But this spring, a combination of a late ice-out and a ban on harvesting spottails from Lake Winnibigoshish is having a ripple effect rarely seen in the fishing industry. Big Winnie, as the lake is called, has always produced the most, and the most desirable, spottails in the region. Now it’s off-limits.
Minnow trappers are desperate. Wholesale minnow dealers are crying for spottails. Bait shops are turning away customers in droves. Anglers are grumpy.
Upper Red Lake near Waskish has seen a big influx of shiner trappers, said third-generation minnow trapper and fishing guide Jonny Petrowske. Competition is cutthroat.
“You have to be there 24 hours a day to watch your traps,” Petrowske said. “It’s turned into a really vicious business. We’re putting iron bars and padlocks over our traps so other bait dealers can’t get them out in the middle of the night.”
Meanwhile, anglers are frustrated because they can’t get their favorite walleye bait.
“There are so many who walk out,” Powell said. “Anymore, they just call. You get so tired of answering the phone (with bad news).”
On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Powell managed to find four gallons - about 200 dozen - spottails in his traps. He called his fiancée, Lynn Schwartz, at the shop. The word went out. By the time Powell returned, trucks and boats were lined up in both directions from his shop to U.S. Highway 2. Anglers rushed to form a line into the shop.
“We sold four gallons in 15 minutes,” Powell said. “I rationed ’em out.”
Bait of preference
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of spottails in this part of the state.
“There’s a following with these shiners and walleyes,” Petrowske said. “(Anglers) truly believe this is all there is. It’s almost a cult following.”
Spottail shiners sell for about twice as much as more common fathead minnows. Powell figures that shiners represent one-third of his total income for the year. He estimates his gross revenues are down by half since the May 11 Minnesota fishing opener.
Down the road, near Cohasset, Ken Roy of River Rat Bait said shiners represent 40 percent of his business for a year. He has managed to get a few from his suppliers, but business is off substantially.
“It’s obviously going to take a big chunk out of our business,” said Roy, in his 11th year at River Rat. “It’s going to be devastating for some people.”
Wholesale bait dealers can’t meet demand from their clients.
“It’s getting worse all the time. Everyone is screaming for shiners,” said wholesale bait dealer Jim Stone of Stone’s Bait Service in Northome. “Everybody’s upset. Bait dealers are upset. Resorts are upset. Fishermen are upset.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Powell checked 10 traps on a lake near Deer River. He collected “two measly gallons” of shiners worth close to $300 at retail. The water remained too cold, and the flashy minnows with the single spot near their tail weren’t moving into the shallows in big numbers yet.
Conditions were similar on Upper Red as of Tuesday.
“With the late ice-out, we’re not catching a damn minnow on this lake,” Petrowske said.
Not every lake produces spottails. Big Winnie was always the main source, but after the larvae of zebra mussels were found over the winter, the Department of Natural Resources banned minnow harvesting there as of May 22. The concern is that minnow trappers would inadvertently collect the larvae of zebra mussels in water they use to transport their minnows, and zebra mussels would be moved to more lakes.
The shiners on Big Winnie hadn’t moved into the shallows, where trappers could get at them, when the ban took effect.
Few other options
To trap shiners in other lakes, those lakes must be certified free of VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia), a fish-killing disease, DNR rules say. So trappers must in most cases pay for that certification, a process that can take up to five days.
Powell refuses to trap Red Lake and infringe on other trappers there. So he’s concentrating on a couple of VHS-certified lakes near Deer River. The lake he trapped Wednesday was certified only five days earlier.
And with the late run, Powell can’t get nearly the number of shiners he needs. In a normal year, he would be supplying 30 other retailers in addition to his own shop.
After an opening weekend when most lakes remained ice-covered, Powell really needed a good Memorial Day Weekend. He didn’t get it.
“I know it took a big toll because we didn’t have shiners,” Powell said. “We usually have 100 gallons (5,000 to 6,000 dozen) for Memorial Day weekend. We didn’t have any.”
He has proposed to the DNR that the agency approve a system of flushing water from trapped minnows and letting that water drain on land away from lakes. He said he believes such a procedure would work and prevent the spread of zebra mussel larvae. But the DNR has not responded to his proposal, he said.
Prospects for a turnaround in spottail trapping this spring remain unclear. Without Big Winnie, trappers are unlikely to get nearly the number of spottails they need from other lakes. At any rate, it will be too little too late, some say.
“The amount of money and business we lost is never going to come back,” Roy said.
Meanwhile, the spottail shortage continues to plague trappers, dealers, bait shops and anglers. By mid- to late June, anglers probably will switch to leeches and other baits, as they typically do. But for now, the shortage remains a big issue to the regional fishing economy.
“This is profit that would go directly into rural towns - Deer River, Northome, Blackduck …” Petrowske said. “If there aren’t shiners, people will load up on fatheads at Walmart or Gander Mountain. They don’t stop and spend money in small towns.
“It’s hard to believe that a minnow controls the economy.”