Management myths dispelled

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Dispelling some common myths and misconceptions about Minnesota fishing, fisheries management, and fish populations.

The reality of fishing in Minnesota

1. Fishing is thriving

There's a rumor that people just aren't fishing anymore. That may be true in New York City or wherever this myth began, but fishing is definitely doing well in Minnesota. Just check the graph below. Fishing license sales have remained steady in recent years. Though the number of anglers as a percent of population has dropped slightly, there are today 200,000 more licensed anglers than 30 years ago. Obviously, plenty of people still fish in Minnesota each year.

2. Fishing is big money in Minnesota

Another common misconception, especially among those who don't fish, is that angling is a rinky-dink affair, far less important than, say, professional sports.

Yet each year anglers spend more than $1.8 billion in Minnesota on fishing-related recreation. That's billion, with a B. The big money goes to boats, gas, and lodging. But the little items add up too. For example, each year anglers in Minnesota spend

  • $50 million on bait
  • $34 million on lures, line, and tackle
  • $8 million on ice.

The figures come from a federal government study on 1996 spending.

On average, an angler spends $1,086 on fishing in Minnesota each year. Benefiting from this outlay of cash are gas stations, cafes, bait shops, motels, and resorts-mostly in rural Minnesota.

Big companies thrive off fishing, too. Among the top national names based in Minnesota are Alumacraft, Crestliner, Inc., Johnson Fishing, Inc., Lund, Northland Tackle, Stearns Manufacturing, Inc., and Water Gremlin.

Cabela's is a fishing retail powerhouse thriving in Minnesota. The Nebraska-based company's 150,000-square-foot Owatonna store is second only to the Mall of America as the most visited retail attraction in Minnesota.

3. Minnesota is doing well compared to the so-called "better" fishing states

A common myth is that "everyone" is fishing in other states such as Wisconsin and Michigan because the fishing in Minnesota has gotten so poor. Statistics show otherwise.

Though it's not possible to determine if fishing is "better" in one state or another, there are ways to compare the popularity and extent of fishing in various states.

Minnesota has more total anglers, receives more income from fishing, and attracts more angling tourists than any surrounding state. For example, anglers spend $360 million more in Minnesota each year than they do in Michigan, which has more people and is surrounded by the Great Lakes and their lucrative charter boat industry.

These figures indicate that Minnesota remains one of the top fishing states in the country.

The reality about DNR fisheries management

1. The DNR works cooperatively with many local groups

One rumor has it that the DNR doesn't work with anglers. Yet Minnesota's 28 fisheries managers and their staff regularly work with hundreds of local fishing clubs, lake associations, individuals, and conservation groups. Such coordination, as this work is called, is essential because it brings fisheries workers face to face with anglers, resort owners, and other citizens who care about the state of fishing. And these daily conversations between managers and citizens in turn drive fisheries management programs on Minnesota's lakes and streams.

Take Lee Sundmark, for example. At his area fisheries office in Hutchinson, he and his small crew are responsible for 40 lakes in five central Minnesota counties. Sundmark says that one of his most important jobs is working with more than two dozen local groups to improve water quality and fish habitat. He encourages the clubs and lake associations to participate in the various programs run by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that show interested citizens how to monitor the health of their local lakes.

Sundmark also sits down with local groups to hear their concerns and to discuss various ways to improve fishing, such as installing aeration systems, planting buffer strips along lakeshores, stabilizing shorelines, and transplanting aquatic plants to reduce erosive wave action.

"The anglers I talk to each day are increasingly interested in lake ecology and how it affects fish habitat and populations," Sundmark says.

2. Few DNR Fisheries staff work in St. Paul

A common belief among anglers is that DNR Fisheries is bloated with bureaucrats. That's not true. Of our 320 staff members, just 18, or less than 6 percent, work in the St. Paul headquarters. The rest are in regional or area field stations statewide.

3. There is lots of public oversight

Many anglers want to know if we are spending their license dollars wisely. "Who's watching the pot?" they ask.

Since 1994, three different citizens committees have been scrutinizing our budge and the Game and Fish Fund. The committees were formed by the Minnesota Legislature to review DNR reports on how we spend money from a range of special accounts. The DNR commissioner appointed citizen leaders to review the:

  • Game and Fish Fund
  • DNR Fisheries budget
  • Trout and Salmon Stamp Fund.

Committee members, who mainly represent major fishing organizations, are charged with reviewing various reports and making recommendations to the legislature.

This oversight is in addition to regular legislative audits of our budget, which is open to public review, and biennial review by state lawmakers.

Even more oversight takes place each January when the Fishing Roundtable convenes. Representing angling groups and other fishing interests, roundtable members spend two days discussing DNR fisheries management proposals and offering suggestions for new ways to improve fishing and management.

4. Fishing licenses are a tiny fraction of overall angler spending

One persistent myth is that the cost of a fishing license is a financial burden for anglers. Maybe it is for some people, but not most. On average, an angler spends $1,086 on fishing (gas, gear, bait, lodging, food, etc.) in Minnesota each year. The $17 individual fishing license represents less than 2 percent of that total.

The reality about lakes and fisheries

1. Lakes can only hold so much fish biomass

Some angles urge us to "make" lakes produce more fish. But a lake can only support a certain amount of fish over the long haul. Referred to as a lake's carrying capacity, this biological limit is based on a lake's size, fertility, amount of available habitat, and length of growing season. There's no way to force a lake to hold more fish than it can, anymore than a field can be forced to grow more corn than its soil can support.

In lakes with good spawning habitat, new additions to the fish population come each spring from natural reproduction. They replace fish lost by predation, starvation, old age, angling, and disease. To stock additional fish into a "full" lake won't work because it creates overpopulation. There isn't enough habitat (food and shelter) for the new fish, so they either displace existing fish or die off.

2. Lake fertility determines fish abundance and species

Many anglers still believe that northern lakes - cool, deep, clear, clean - are the ones packed with fish. But actually, it's southwestern lakes that contain and produce the most fish per acre. A northern Minnesota lake simply can't produce as much fish as a similar sized southwestern lake, any more than an acre of land in St. Louis County can grow as much corn as an acre in Le Sueur County. A northern Minnesota lake such as Vermillion in St. Louis County produces about 8 pounds of game fish per acre, while a southern Minnesota lake such as Tetonka in Le Sueur County produces about 40 pounds of game fish per acre.

Why the difference? Because lake fertility is one of the most important factors limiting the number and size of fish in a lake. The more fertile the lake - up to a limit - the more fish per acre it can produce. That's because fertile lakes support more plant life, and plant life supports the entire food chain.

Minnesota's lakes range from the relatively infertile oligotrophic ("scantily nourished") Northern Minnesota lakes, which have steep, rocky shores and contain few nutrients, and are so deep that the sun can penetrate only a small amount of water, to the extremely fertile eutrophic ("richly nourished") southwestern Minnesota lakes, which are surrounded by rich farmland and are so shallow that sunlight can reach -and thus stimulate plant growth in-a relatively large percentage of the water mass.

Between two regions are the central Minnesota lakes, called mesotrophic ("moderately nourished").

One qualifier: Lakes can actually have too many nutrients and grow too fertile to support game fish. That's because the same plants that provide food and oxygen to the lake also consume oxygen when they die and decompose. Every few winters, thick ice and snow on shallow lakes block adequate sunlight from reaching plants, which then die. As the vegetation decomposes, it uses up dissolved oxygen needed by fish to survive. When fish die in large numbers in late winter from lack of oxygen, it is called winterkill. This commonly occurs on overly fertile southwestern lakes and ponds.

3. Much depends on year classes

Anglers on Lake Mille Lacs and Rainy Lake now understand the importance of year classes. Anglers on other lakes are catching on too.

The single most important factor affecting whether or not anglers catch walleyes is year class variability. A year class is a generation of walleyes born the same year. Each spring a new year class is born. Depending on spawning conditions and survival - determined largely by water temperatures from April to June-some year classes have lots of fish, and some have few.

In any given decade, a lake usually has two or three abundant ("strong") year classes, two or three sparse ("weak") year classes, and four or five medium year classes.

When, after four or five years, a strong year class reaches catchable size (14 inches), anglers start hooking more fish. When two or three strong year classes are in the main catchable size range (14 to 24 inches), the fishing can be fantastic. That's been the case on Rainy Lake in recent years.

But the converse is also true. When several weak year classes in a row reach catchable size, the fishing can get difficult. The lake just didn't have the right biological conditions those years to produce more fish. Usually the cause was a cold spring that killed young walleye fry as they hatched.

Fortunately for anglers, lakes that have strong natural reproduction usually have enough strong year classes to provide plenty of catchable fish to offset the effects of a few consecutive weak year classes.

4. Limits of fishing success

Didn't catch a lot of walleyes last Saturday? The fact is, most anglers don't catch even one keeper-sized game fish on a typical day of fishing. That's not because the fishing is poor; it's just the nature of fishing.

On any given day, 95 percent of walleye anglers harvest two or fewer walleyes. This generally holds true on every walleye lake in Minnesota and across the U.S. For example, 1992 was considered the best year in modern history for fishing on Mille Lacs, one of the top walleye lakes in the United States. Yet even during that banner year, 76 percent of anglers there on any given day did not catch a fish.

It's not such a bad thing that anglers don't always or even regularly catch their limit. There simply aren't enough fish. For example, we estimate that Minnesota has roughly 18 million walleyes over 14 inches long (general keeper size). Approximately 27 million angler days are spent fishing each year. If every angler caught and kept just one walleye on average per outing, the state's entire keeper-sized walleye population would be wiped out before the year was over.

As fishing pressure increases while the number of fishing waters stays the same, anglers crop off the keeper-sized fish as soon as the fish reach keeper size. Soon, more and more small fish dominate the fish populations. Decent-sized fish become rare.

The only solution, says biologist and a growing number of anglers, is to limit the number of medium-sized and large fish that are harvested. In time, that would result in an increase in the average size of fish that anglers catch.

Terminology of limits

Bag, or possession limit:

This is the total number of a certain species that an angler may possess, in one day or over several days, both on the water or off. For example, you may not have in your possession more than six walleyes, and that includes what's in the livewell and in the cabin freezer.

Use: This general, statewide limit prevents the commercialization of sportfishing and distributes the catch among anglers. But because so few anglers ever catch a limit (roughly 1 percent of anglers on any given day harvests a walleye limit), current bag limits generally do little to protect fish populations from overharvest.

Protected slot limit:

This is a size range, or slot, in which fish must be released. For example, a 12- to 16-inch slot limit for bass means that all bass from 12 to 16 inches long must be released.

Use: Protected slot limits protect medium-sized fish so they can grow to be the large fish anglers most enjoy catching. They also preserve fish that are at their most prolific spawning age.

Harvest slot limit:

This is a size range in which fish may be kept. For example, a 14- to 18-inch harvest slot means that only fish between 14 and 18 inches may be kept. All others must be released.

Use: Harvest slot limits protect larger, spawning-aged fish while limiting the overall harvest.

Minimum size limit:

This limit requires that all fish below a set length must be released. For example, the statewide minimum size limit for muskellunge is 40 inches, meaning that you may not keep a muskie less than 40 inches long.

Use: this protects slow-maturing fish such as muskies, steelhead, and lake sturgeon until they can spawn at least once.

Maximum size limit:

This means that all fish above a set length must be released. A 24-inch maximum size limit for northern pike means you may not keep a northern that's longer than 24 inches.

Use: this works much like a protected slot limit to increase the number of medium and large-sized fish.

One-over limit:

This means you may keep one fish over a set length. For example, in 2001 on Lake Mille Lacs you may only keep one walleye that is more than 28 inches long.

Use: This limit allows the harvest of a true trophy fish that an angler might catch once in a lifetime.