It's a balmy spring day with warm sunshine on a clandestine small lake in central Minnesota. From the inside of my boat, I pitch a tiny pink jig and bobber to the edge of a promising-looking patch of olive-green hardstem bulrush. The rig hits the water with a small splash and I see shadows stir nearby. The bobber dances twice, then darts straight down under the gleaming water surface and angles away from me. I set the hook with a jerk of my rod and a whirling dervish spins in powerful tight circles, arcing and bouncing the rod with frenzied tugs.
Slowly the fish tires and I draw it near. Soon, in bright afternoon sunshine, a knob-headed male bluegill rests in my wetted hand, its plump proportions overtaking my palm and digits. Beautiful iridescent blue, green, and purple on the gill cover and a bright orange breast mimic the spectacular coloration of a watercolor summer sunset sky. I know, as an area supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries, that individual bluegills of this size could once be found across the fish's range in Minnesota. Today these behemoths are found in but a handful of waters.
While walleyes are Minnesota's state fish, sunfish take the prize for being the most widely distributed sport fish across the state, as well as the most harvested fish. Many types of Minnesotans, from shore-fishing urban anglers to lake-country cabin owners, eagerly pursue sunnies. "Sunfish" refers to a cluster of species from the genus Lepomis. In Minnesota, that cluster includes bluegill, pumpkinseed, green sunfish, orangespotted sunfish, northern sunfish, warmouth, and their hybrids. Among these species, bluegill and pumpkinseed are by far the most familiar to Minnesota anglers. Sunfish are often a child's first fish caught and a staple at fish fries.
Fisheries managers and anglers alike once believed you could never overfish sunfish. Today, we know that's a myth. Minnesota sunfish abundance is as good as or higher than historical levels, but fish size has declined. In many places, years of keeping large fish and releasing little ones to grow up has backfired. We have overharvested large bluegills.
Anglers' longtime reliance on sunfish species for meals of fish, it turns out, has had unintended consequences. Because sunfish group up in schools and are eager biters, they are vulnerable to harvest. Sunfish angling is open year-round in Minnesota, including in the late spring and early summer when large males guard nests during spawning. Anglers often prefer keeping the largest sunfish caught to yield the largest fillet, which can have negative effects by removing the largest, latest maturing, and fastest growing fish, in particular males. Research has shown that decades of harvesting large numbers of sunfish have created unbalanced fish communities with far too many small sunfish and very few large ones.
One famous study by former DNR Fisheries biologists Donald Olson and Paul Cunningham looked at weights of entries in the Park Rapids Fuller's Hardware Fishing Contest from 1930 to 1987. Until 1953, the average weight of contest-entered bluegills was around 1.3 pounds. After 1953, average weight declined to 0.8 pounds in 1987. Trophy-size bluegill contest entries also declined after 1953, and the biologists noted that "This likely reflected reduced availability of panfish that anglers considered of acceptable contest size as well as less interest in angling for small panfish."
Anglers who wish to catch the state's larger sunfish are becoming increasingly frustrated. In a 2016 panfish angler survey, participants said they felt more satisfied with the number of panfish they caught than with the size of those fish. A similar survey nearly 30 years earlier also noted satisfaction in the number of panfish caught yet dissatisfaction with the size of the fish. In the time between these surveys, sunfish bag limits have been lowered from 30 fish per day to 20.
Public interest in regulations that protect or enhance opportunities for large sunfish has increased in recent years. In 1996 the DNR began experimental and special regulations on what today totals 59 big sunfish waters in Minnesota, and these regs have maintained or improved size quality. Anglers have noticed the appreciable size difference. In reviews of 31 of these waters, panfish size improvements and public support led the DNR to keep the regulations on all 31 water bodies, with several of the lakes adopting even more conservative bag limits.
To really see a significant change in panfish size, anglers will have to keep fewer fish than they once did. In order to see improvements in sunfish size, daily bag limits would have to be lowered and harvest reduced by 40 percent, according to a study by Minnesota DNR Fisheries researcher Pete Jacobson. Wisconsin researcher Andrew Rypel echoed those findings in a similar study published in 2015. The science is clear: Angler harvest is frequently the most important factor affecting sunfish size, and in most cases, if anglers want larger sunfish, they need to keep fewer.
"Bag limits have been based on a socially defined concept of fair harvest, rather than on biological principles," says Grand Rapids DNR Area Fisheries supervisor Dave Weitzel. "Looking at Minnesota's sunfish statewide regulation history, it's interesting to note that during the Great Depression, when some anglers could have benefited from year-round angling seasons in order to feed their families, anglers supported closed seasons, zones, and a smaller bag limit than are in use today. In the Olson and Cunningham study, 1953 was a breaking point that began a steady decline in contest-entered bluegill size. 1954 was the year that continuous angling seasons for bluegill began in Minnesota."
Says DNR Fisheries researcher Jeff Reed, "There's a myth that you can't take too many sunfish. In reality, a lot of populations are overexploited." A lot of anglers, he says, don't understand how long it takes to grow a big, 9- or 10-inch sunfish. A bluegill that size can be 10 years old. In the same time it takes to grow a trophy sunfish, you can grow two or three trophy white-tailed deer bucks.
Garett Svir is a fishing guide who specializes in panfish. Some of his clients want big fish, some want fish for eating, and some want a mix of both.
"The first question I ask at the start of a trip is what do you want to keep? Nobody says a limit anymore," Svir says. "They put some thought into it. I hear, 'If we kept eight, that would be plenty. I just need enough for a meal for my wife and me.' "
Angler attitudes have shifted, he says, from "the stockpiling mentality" to "a more conservation-minded standpoint."
"Now it's, 'Limit your catch, don't catch your limit.' I see a growing group of anglers that are interested in catch-photo-and-releasing big fish, putting those pictures on social media, and spreading the message of catch and release."
Svir notes that modern fish replicas, which can be created from a photo and basic measurements, are as good as, if not better than, traditional skin taxidermy fish mounts, so it's not essential to keep the fish to earn bragging rights.
Back in my boat at my secret sunny spot, where I'm holding the prodigious bluegill, I face the question all successful sunfish anglers encounter: Keep the fish or let it go? I reach my own conclusion developed through time, personal experience, and my background in fisheries science. I take a quick cell-phone photograph of the gaudy male lying flat in my hand before reaching over the boat's side to put the fish back in the water.
Just below the surface, the old bull bluegill reorients itself with a few flicks of its pectoral fins, flares the long, jet-black ear tabs on its gill cover, then bolts for the lake's bottom and safety in a mass of aquatic plants. I'll choose smaller fish for a meal, and I'll look forward to a chance to catch this fish and others like it on this secluded lake in the future.
Minnesota sunfish anglers are increasingly hearing a new, important message: It's fine to keep some fish for a meal, but be mindful of the bag limit and release the largest fish. It's a fundamental shift away from the myth that says you can't take too many sunfish, and it means a cultural shift for Minnesota sunfish anglers. Weitzel, Reed, and Minnesota's DNR Fisheries managers are taking a hard look at statewide bag limits and continuing to search for candidate lakes where special regulations can create well-balanced sunfish populations that provide more opportunities for anglers of all kinds to land a big one.
A Wisconsin sunfish project may provide guidance. Researchers are studying experimental regulations on 94 lakes to gauge the effects of reduced harvest; they will evaluate the results in 2021.
If Minnesota enacts new sunfish regulations, they must be easily understood, apply to a diversity of fisheries, and convey the message that large fish are rare, biologically important, and worthy of release. When it comes to what we keep and what we release, the future of sizable sunfish is in anglers' hands.