The Truth About Special Regs
Has a decade of customized regulations improved fishing?
By Jason Abraham
Karl Dyre has seen a lot of walleyes taken from Big Sand Lake, where he's operated Evergreen Lodge for the past 46 years. But it wasn't until the mid-1980s, when anglers started fishing at night, that he became concerned.
"After dark, they'd troll crank baits. They were taking fish like I'd never seen before." Although legal, the practice had a devastating effect on the walleye population, Dyre said. "It just went down to nothing after that."
Dyre was among many who concluded that the state's fishing regulations were no longer working on some waters. Advanced electronic depth finders, underwater cameras, comfortable boats, and inexpensive but high-quality fishing gear-along with a flood of angling information via books, magazines, and television shows-allowed anglers to take too many big fish, it seemed. And small fish were becoming more abundant than ever.
In 1991 about 40 people representing fishing groups, resorts, lakeshore associations, and the Legislature met for two days at the first Department of Natural Resources fishing roundtable. The consensus: For Minnesota to maintain its national reputation for top-notch angling, something had to change.
Roundtable members rallied around managing individual lakes with custom-designed fishing regulations. Such special regulations aim to improve a fishery by requiring anglers to release certain fish that would be legal under statewide regulations.
With the support of anglers, the number of lakes with special regulations expanded from 14 lakes, most in northern Minnesota, in the late 1980s to 162 lakes around the state today.
Special regulations have been applied to many fish, including walleyes, northern pike, bass, crappies, perch, stream trout, and sunfish. Usually the regulations for keeping fish are based on the length of the fish or a reduced possession limit.
A decade after the DNR expanded the use of customized regulations to improve fishing, Fisheries researchers report mixed success. Now they are streamlining regulations to lessen confusion among anglers and increase compliance, thus maximizing the benefits.
Anglers who have adjusted fishing-and eating-habits to comply with special regulations want to know: How much have they improved fishing?
Tim Goeman, a DNR regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids, has been studying the effectiveness of individual lakes management during the past 10 years. According to his preliminary findings, special regulations, when they are restrictive enough and supported by anglers, do improve the quality of walleye and bass populations. But the jury is still out on whether northern pike, crappie, sunfish, and perch populations have benefited.
On Big Sand Lake, a special regulation allows anglers to keep one walleye longer than 26 inches and requires release of those 18 inches through 26 inches. This protects medium-sized fish so they can grow larger, according to Doug Kingsley, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Park Rapids. (Under the statewide walleye regulation, anglers may harvest six walleyes with one longer than 24 inches.)
According to a DNR survey, people who fished the 1,650-acre lake caught 3.5 times more 18- to 26-inch walleyes per hour in 2002 than they did in the early 1990s. Disappointingly, however, the catch rate for walleyes longer than 26 inches stayed the same. In addition, anglers caught one-third fewer walleyes that could legally be harvested (smaller than 18 inches) in 2002 than they did in the early 1990s.
"It's kind of a mixed bag overall," Kingsley said. "Some anglers are disappointed because they haven't been able to harvest as many fish, but for many that's overshadowed by the satisfaction of catching bigger fish."
Guests at Evergreen Lodge have been satisfied with the regulation for the most part, according to Dyre. "We knew we were going to lose some business when they first put the regulation on in 1989, and we did. But it got rid of the fish hogs, and what little business they did we could do without," Dyre said. "Now we get just as many serious anglers in the early spring, but they're more interested in the lake. And for the most part, they put fish back."
For a year or two after special regulations go into effect, anglers might avoid a lake like Big Sand, Goeman said. However, fishing pressure usually returns to previous levels within a few years.
At Big Stone Lake on the South Dakota border, a special regulation was replaced this year. Research showed the walleye population hadn't improved, according to Norm Haukos, DNR areas fisheries supervisor at Ortonville.
The 1996 regulation, which prohibited the harvest of walleyes smaller than 14 inches, didn't have its intended effect of increasing the number of walleyes longer than 15 inches. In fact, the number of walleyes longer than 15 inches decreased by 7 percent from 1996 to 2002, according to Chris Domeier, DNR assistant area fisheries supervisor at Ortonville. Typically, with a minimum size limit, as soon as a fish reaches legal size it is harvested.
"We wound up with too many fish under 14 inches competing for the same food source. There wasn't enough food, and it slowed down the growth of the population," Domeier said. "It doesn't seem logical, but it's very important to harvest small- to medium-sized walleye when they're abundant. It allows the survivors to more effectively compete for food and grow larger."
The replacement regulation reduces the limit to four with only one fish longer than 20 inches. Haukos said he's heard considerable public support for the change. "Anglers were able to see for themselves that the old regulation wasn't working," he said. "We took our data to five public meetings [before changing the regulation], and it basically matched people's personal experiences. There was very little controversy."
So far, evaluations show that special regulations have achieved their goal on six of the 40 lakes Goeman is studying. Special regulations have been replaced or allowed to revert to statewide regulations on an equal number of lakes. Evaluations on the remaining lakes with special regulations will be complete in the next five years, he said.
"We continue to learn. It's just as advantageous to know about regulations that didn't work as to know about those that did," Goeman said. "We will continue to build on our knowledge base and refine regulations."
Ron Payer, DNR Fisheries chief, said special regulations would likely be expanded to more lakes in the future.
"One of the difficult issues is how to be restrictive enough to improve the quality of fishing and still get compliance from anglers," he said. "If just 10 percent of people fishing a lake don't comply, it can negate the effect of the special regulation."
Special regulations in effect now will remain the same. However, new special regulations will be chosen from a standardized set that contains three options for crappies and walleyes, two for bass, and one for sunfish. Each regulation is restrictive enough to result in a measurable difference in fish size or quality, Payer said.
The idea is to cut down on variations among special regulations for fish of the same species. "There are currently 21 variations of size and length regulations for walleye," Payer said. "If we can simplify that, it would be less confusing for anglers."
Preliminary results of Goeman's study show that streamlined regulations could have the same beneficial effects as existing special regulations.
"Although we used state-of-the-art computer modeling to devise the best regulation for each individual lake, it was becoming obvious that we did not need five different slot limits for bass," Goeman said. "One seemed to do the job equally well on most lakes, and avoided the complexity of multiple regulation types. Hence, we can use two or three regulations for each species, depending on the lake type and the objectives of the regulation. Life is simpler, the results are the same, and everyone wins."
In addition to alleviating confusion for anglers, the new format for customized regulations should help researchers measure the success of each regulation because it will be applied to a greater number of lakes, providing a larger set of data. Fisheries managers will be able to consider options outside the regulations toolbox if there are significant special circumstances.
Although special regulations are important in managing Minnesota's fish populations, Payer said it's also important to remember that regulations are only one part of the equation.
"The foundation of good fishing and a quality fish population is always good water quality and good fish habitat," Payer said. "Without that, neither regulations nor stocking will be effective."
Jason Abraham is a staff writer for the DNR divisions of Fish and Wildlife and Ecological Resources.