BEMIDJI -- Crunching numbers, filing reports and determining the day-to-day schedules of his staff are among the duties of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager.
Fortunately for Gary Barnard, so is heading into the field to work the walleye spawning run or hopping into the boat to assess fish populations.
Barnard began his stint with the Minnesota DNR in 1976 at the Waterville office as a fisheries technician, later promoted to fisheries specialist. In 1994, his career path took him to Bemidji as the area fisheries supervisor and, after 25 years in that role and 43 years with the DNR, Barnard will officially retire Monday, Oct. 14.
The area fisheries supervisor position in Bemidji was the perfect job for Barnard, he said, as it challenged him to use all of his professional and people skills while still offering the opportunity to work outside of an office in a part of the state that he loves.
“This job is far enough up (the professional ladder) that you get to call some of the shots, I guess, but it’s still a job that allows you to get in the field as often as you want,” Barnard said. “There is plenty of opportunity for field work, whether it’s on a walleye spawning platform, or lake surveys, night electrofishing or muskie assessments. To me, it was kind of the ideal job where you can have a little of both.”
While Barnard fully understands the intricacies of fish management, his ability to bring people together toward a common goal probably is his greatest attribute.
“Gary has left his mark on fish management in Minnesota,” said Henry Drewes who is the DNR’s Northwest Region fisheries supervisor. “His legacy started with work on fish culture in Waterville with his many innovations on the management of catfish, walleyes and muskies. But his ability to work with people is among his best skills. And that is a skill not everybody has.”
Restoring Red Lake
Among Barnard’s first major projects upon his arrival in Bemidji was the restoration of Red Lake. The walleye fishery on Upper and Lower Red Lake was in tough shape in the late 1990s, and to bring the walleye population back to its historic high levels was a task that required innovation and the cooperation of many people.
“For a successful project, you need a lot of good people around you who are interested and motivated with what you are trying to do, and you need to get them on board,” Barnard said. “One way to do that is to get out there shoulder-to-shoulder with people and be working (in the field) on these projects. It’s great to have an idea of a sampling plan and then send somebody out to do it, but if you actively participate in it, people will buy into (the plan) a lot quicker.”
Transparency and honesty also are necessary to earn the public’s trust, according to Barnard.
“When you are working on a project, you must be honest and up front with folks,” he said. “You must let them know that we are going to try some things but you can’t be afraid to admit that we don’t know everything. And you have to explain the good reasons for what we are trying.”
That transparency and honesty kept the public informed during the decade-long project to restore the walleye population on Upper and Lower Red Lake. And, because people knew the details of the recovery plan, they bought into it, even though the plan included closing both Upper and Lower Red Lake to all harvest for up to 10 years.
“When I got to Bemidji the walleye population (on Red Lake) was in a state of collapse, although we probably didn’t realize it at the time because the population had been cycling up and down for a number of years and we were in one of the down cycles,” Barnard said. “But we were soon to realize that it wasn’t going to cycle back on its own and that is when the restoration project really took off.
“From my standpoint it was an opportunity to do some fish management on a pretty important system and when you start at such a low point, there is nowhere to go but up.”
In addition to closing the lakes to all walleye harvest, the management scheme Barnard and his colleagues devised included restoration stocking and monitoring the success or failure of the stocking effort through the use of oxytetracycline (OTC), a chemical that had never been implemented on a scale of this magnitude.
“Stocking to that degree (40 million fry per year) had really never been attempted on large lakes of this magnitude before,” Barnard said. “In the past we had said that stocking these larger systems was futile but now we were reversing that and we are saying that maybe it will work in this situation where spawner stock was so depleted.”
The new stocking approach did work and the walleye populations of Upper and Lower Red Lake rebounded ahead of schedule, reopening to angling in May 2006.
Today, Lower Red Lake is sustaining the Red Lake Tribe’s commercial fishery market while Upper Red is attracting and satisfying anglers from all over the Upper Midwest.
Tackling northern pike
While the Red Lake system has been restored, many areas of the state are struggling with the northern pike management. And Barnard has been instrumental in the effort to return larger pike into those systems.
“People have recognized the loss of big pike and the explosion of hammer-handle pike,” he said. “The process (of restoring larger pike) was driven by the public who noticed something wrong with these populations. Also, we, as biologists, could see some of the ramifications of high pike density on forage and other things. We could see that high densities of small pike were really disrupting the fish communities. And most of that problem was in the North-Central zone.”
Barnard was on the state technical committee addressing the overabundance of small pike and, partly because of his 18-year tenure dealing with fisheries in the Waterville area, he realized a one-size-fits-all approach was not the answer.
“It was a long, drawn out process from changing the statewide regulation to sorting it out by zones, and determining where the zone lines were going to be,” Barnard said. “It took us six years to get to the implementation phase (of the North-central, Northeast and Southern zone regulations).”
The persistence of Barnard and others, however, paid off and the new zone northern pike regulations are in place.
“It looks like a ‘win’ all around, and the public acceptance appears to be really good right now,” he said.
During his 43 years with the DNR, Barnard has influenced the Minnesota fishing world through the Red Lake, OTC and northern pike projects, plus his behind-the-scenes management. Anyone who has caught a fish in a Minnesota lake has benefitted from his expertise and his commitment. And now he can hop in his boat and enjoy the fruits of his labors from a less hectic and non-scientific perspective.
“I’ve worked with Gary since 1998 and I feel privileged and honored to have had that opportunity,” Drewes said. “Gary is still regarded as one of the top fish culturists, he has been a mentor to many of his fellow workers, and his public relations skills are the crème de la crème. Gary is an outstanding fisheries manager and he also is a good fisherman.”
And he has some fishing buddies he can always count on.
“I have my wife, three children and five grandkids who I want to spend more time with,” he said. “I enjoy hunting, fishing and trapping and I’ll stay in the area because there is lots to do here. My grandkids have been introduced to the outdoors, and I hope to do that with them even more.”